A few things I learned about cancer

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

“Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”

David Bowie dying was a shock. That he died from cancer made it even worse. There have been gazillions of beautiful tributes to this man who crossed so many boundaries in culture. Many of the tributes are far better written than I could ever attempt.  I will say this however, had I not gone through the last few months of watching my partner recover from cancer treatment I might have felt different about this passing. For starters, cancer is an astonishingly awful disease on many levels – and the varieties of cancers only mean that the body is then issued an exacting horror route to death. All I could do for several days was to conflate my own experience with that of a man I never met but felt deeply sympathetic toward. It doesn’t seem fitting that someone so other worldly can die in such an Earth bound way; I prefer to think he just sailed back to the star he came from.

I’ve learned a lot in the last few months. Some of it very specific and unique to my experience; what I will do with this acute knowledge I do not know. Some of it more general and helpful (maybe?), I wish to share a few thoughts here.

Cancer is complicated. There is nothing simple about getting and dealing with cancer. An MRI will reveal something that a doctor might recognize but only a biopsy will tell you what it is. And then, the doctors are never definitive. It all begins with percentages and numbers. Lots and lots of numbers. Are you good at numbers? If not, and you find you have cancer, get someone who is. We were lucky my partner can do math in his head and our prognosis was in the 80 – 90% recovery rate. These numbers meant everything to me, they became a mantra.

There is tons of information to absorb. There will be many, many tests. Everything happens at once because the doctors are motivated to get you into treatment as soon as possible, so, what the treatment will do the body, where you are going to live during treatment, what you will be able to eat during treatment, how much money you will spend on pharmaceuticals, what floors of the hospitals are for what session, what weekly meetings and appointments you will have to keep is all told to you while you are reeling from the shock of realizing that this is in fact really happening.

A public domain image of a cancer cell. While there is a referral to this kind of thing as a black star, I think Bowie was probably not being that literal. In any case, it all seemed pretty chilling to us.
A public domain image of a cancer cell. There is a referral to this kind of thing as a black star, was Bowie being that literal? Cancer can make one very inward thinking; maybe that is all that is going on in his last recording.

Cancer treatment is as horrible as everyone says it is. Radiation therapy is hardly therapy it’s more like a slow form of high tech torture. If it wasn’t so awful it could be kind of cool, like in a Bond film. A really slow anti-climactic Bond film. The machines are impressive; in fact the technology is stunning. As someone who believes that technology is an extension of consciousness, I was fascinated… eventually, most of the time I was just scared. The worst aspect of the ‘therapy’ is actually what the hospital called pain management. I scoffed at this term initially but it is exactly that, a course where you need to balance several medications in order to manage pain. Again, if you are not good with numbers find someone because knowing your milligrams is important.

Cancer is isolating. You will stop being invited to anything because our society has no idea how to handle personal crisis and people get spooked easily. It’s not a nice word: cancer and there seems to be a feeling in our culture that to be near it is to get it. Plus no one knows what to say. My favourite response was from a really good friend who just said “oh shit.” Yeah, that was great because that was all that you can say. But you can’t get angry at people; we are not schooled in how to help in these situations. Not everyone has that Jesus gene where they know exactly how to help the sick.

There are however astonishingly devoted people in your life that will call every week and offer all manors of things. Do you need money? A place to stay? Drives? Grocery shopping? Some people are just plain golden.

Caregivers live in a void. The treatment my partner received was top notch, state of the art cancer treatment, his doctors the best in the country and it was all free. I can hardly complain about the other failings of our health care system. So I won’t. But I will say that it is perhaps a societal failing that leaves so many people who look after cancer patients without anyone to talk to or look toward for guidance. I was lost many times while my partner was essentially immobilized in pain or exhaustion. I ran our household, our careers and also spent every other waking minute looking after someone with very complicated needs. My friends and family were a tremendous support but they understood the disease less than me. It would be great to have medical professionals whose only duties would be to be available to people who look after suffering loved ones.

The worst thankfully is now over. We just await that moment when the doctor says, “it’s gone.” Meanwhile we are enjoying our cabin nestled in the Ontario snow, a blue moon making the darkness light – as always the wilderness around us emits its own metaphorical poetry and becomes our salvation again.

The above quote is from David Bowie’s last recording Blackstar, a monumental work that will transfix and beguile people for generations. 

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4 thoughts on “A few things I learned about cancer”

  1. Victoria, your writing is beautiful and succinct- its such a horrible subject, so hard to put it all into words. I wish more people could read it. And I’m sorry you had no one to turn to for advice or support. In the UK we have a few charities who help out and are great- the McMillan Nurses for starters, who helped me deal with all the minutiae while I was looking after my father when he developed cancer.
    Enjoy your cabin- it sounds like a great place to rest.

    1. Thank you for your words. I am familiar with the wonderful health service in the UK. We have a great health system too, but it does tend to get overwhelmed and sometimes those of us in the caregiver role slip through the cracks. I have every hope however that the kinds of support nurses you mention provide will one day become a reality here too. Thank you.

  2. So sorry to hear what you both have been going through, lots of loving thoughts to you guys, hope you hear those beautiful words soon.

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