Just over a year ago, I wrote in these pages about being diagnosed with a rare cancer. Now for the good news: I am writing this while alive. In May I had scans that came back clear of the disease.
I still have a way to go. On diagnosis, I was given a roughly 50-50 chance of surviving the next five years. That was factoring in the effects of chemotherapy, a gruelling eight months I never want to revisit.
But a clear scan is a fine thing. The first thing I did was get the portacath cut out: this is the implant used for administering chemo drugs. It is extremely pleasing to no longer be a cyborg, just a regular person, albeit with a toothpick-sized scar below my collarbone.
My other scar is longer. I oil it daily and it’s fading, but it will always be visible: a handspan-length line stretching upwards from my jeans-band, the result of a six-hour operation to cut out a tumour blocking my small intestine.
So what now? My oncologist says, “Don’t leave anything on the paddock.” Which is baffling football speak and means nothing to me. What she says after that, in English, boils down to two things: don’t get depressed and prioritise getting fit.
She explains that some people fall into a funk when their treatment ends; the thing that has given their life structure has been taken away. She also says, “In an ideal world, you would get a trainer.” Fitness is the one factor that is known to improve survival odds.
I’ve entered what people call cancer “survivorship”. Hearing the term from a doctor last October, I figured it just meant living. What is the condition of surviving, except not being dead?
Out of a sense of diligence, I’ve checked the internet, but that’s basically it: survivorship is what it says on the tin – living after cancer. Websites refer to mixed emotions and anxiety, which is surprising if you think being alive is a good news story.
One of my friends survived cancer before I did. Agostino had a choker of tumours around his neck. He had surgery and treatment in Pisa, Italy. (He joked about retro facilities and a Sputnik-era vibe.) Along the way, he took up running. In a matter of months after his treatment, he finished his doctorate at Oxford, landed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale, and ran the Florence and Philadelphia marathons.
It’s almost a cliché of the post-cancer experience: the burst of energy and verve, the astonishing achievements. I feel that energy when I get out of my chemo slump. By June, I am in what looks like full swing. I map out the weeks and months with plans. I go back to work and yoga. With my core muscles still weak from the operation, I do boat pose variations until I want to weep.
In August, I spend a week at a health farm near Byron Bay. For some time my partner has been pushing the idea, convinced it will help me to recuperate. I peruse the website beforehand and wonder if “vitality” is health farm code for “skinny”.
But I approach the experience like Margaret Mead in the South Pacific. Or David Foster Wallace taking a Caribbean cruise for his mordant essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” (Google it. You won’t regret it.)
I enter into the rituals. I wear a paper G-string to be scrubbed down in a steam room. (It turns out that paper G-strings are an essential part of the experience. Ditto branded velour slippers and a cotton yukata.) I have – for the first time and the last time – what is known as a facial.
At health farms, you put yourself in the hands of an assortment of people who are not doctors. There is the masseuse who informs me that cancer is “a lot to do with emotions”. There is the naturopath who reads my disclosure form and baulks visibly at the bit about my cancer and treatment. I’m steeled for sympathy, but she surprises me by looking up and saying, “Well done.”
The acknowledgment is oddly affecting. “Thank you,” I manage to say.
My favourite, though, is the no-nonsense acupuncturist. Taking my pulse, she looks impressed, tells me my chi is “all there” and predicts a full recovery by the end of the year. This is more like it. On the last day of my stay, I skip the gym class to walk to the nearest village where, finding a cafe, I slam two flat whites and feel like a million bucks.
Coming back to reality is weirdly difficult. No more reading by the plunge pool. No more chef-cooked meals. It’s all very unjust, and moving through the cold dark city feels like scaling Everest.
“Why is this harder than before?” I ask, slightly miffed. “Because before you were being crazy,” says everyone. Fair enough. “You relaxed,” my partner says. “That’s why I wanted you to go.”
Soon afterward, I see my oncologist again. This is a regular quarterly check-up. From blood tests I learn that while my platelet count is up, it is still officially subnormal. That’s a measure of my bone marrow, which is slowly rebuilding after chemotherapy. It’s why I’ve been lacklustre.
In September, we try some travel. Heading to New Zealand for a long weekend, we descend on a spa town like Edwardian leisure tourists. It’s daggy and perfect, a miniature Baden-Baden amid North Island farming country. We hike to some falls. We soak in the mineral spa. We eat at an organic cafe frequented by old beatniks and a dog named Pippy. (Or “Puppy” as we call her, in our sustained confusion at the New Zealand accent.)
The next week, back in Sydney, my friend Dazza sets me up on a kind of blind cancer date, meaning he wants me to meet his other friend with cancer. “I really think it would be good for her to meet you,” he tells me.
By now I’ve already twigged to one side effect of cancer, which is that all sorts of people will tell you cancer stories, some jolly, some not so much. At a party not long ago, a friend from law school bounded up and, without preamble, told me about the time he had to pick a new testicle from an array of variously sized, squeezable prostheses: “The thing is, you don’t want to go too big.”
More often I get tales about cancerous third parties. “My mother is having chemo,” a handyman told me while I was still having treatment. I asked how she was doing. Him: “She pukes every day and her life is not worth living.” Me: “…” (The variation on this story is the one where someone dies.)
The cancer date is something new altogether. I have qualms but say I’ll go. At the last minute, I stress out, feeling I don’t have it in me to coach someone else. I do the sensible thing and preload on bad pizza. I call a friend to ask if she’ll come, but she’s busy elsewhere, eating better pizza.
“Can’t you cancel?” she asks.
“She has cancer. That would be a jerk manoeuvre.”
Actually, the meeting is not what I expect. It turns out that the girl, who is a twentysomething bombshell, mainly wants man advice. A film star of her acquaintance has asked her to have his baby. For a struggling creative type, the proposition has some appeal.
She’s had two rounds of radiation. She blamed herself for the cancer and prepared for death, only to become depressed when she realised she would live. She speaks dreamily about being able to afford her treatment – and maybe even getting cast on Home and Away.
What can I tell her? She’s had a rough deal. Of the film star, I say, “Try before you buy. Perhaps you could date the guy for a couple of months?” Of the disease: “It’s not your fault. It’s just a thing that happened.” I can see she has doubts so I say the same thing again.
Then I go home, wash my hair and oil my scars. The evening has made me feel older, although not in a bad way. Just older and battle seasoned, like a survivor.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Survivor diaries". Subscribe here.