The ghosts of Christmas past

On the 11th of December, I “celebrated” my “cancerversary”, a year since diagnosis.

It is a course a moment that  will be burned into my memory forever.  As for some of the following weeks, some of it was a blur, but there were other moments that were seared indelibly, and indeed, the wounds cut nearly as deep as the summer afternoon on 11 December.

One of them was the Christmas shopping.  In the days following my diagnosis, I became more and more zombielike, and people started to carry me through certain events, knowing my complete incapability of being able to do anything but merely take another breath through the pain and the terror, and heaven knows, sometimes even that was nearly impossible.

No one took more of the weight of my “thought load”, than my dear friend Kez.  We met on on the day our eldest kids started prep together, and I found out later that she thought I was a snob.  We bonded some time later over our love of a good wine, and a bloody good quantity of it, and  we’ve never looked back.  Kez is the sort of friend that you only meet once or twice in your life, a true soul friend.

So, in the couple of days after my diagnosis, she suggested we get the Christmas shopping “out of the way”.  I knew she had to feel that she was taking care of the practicalities, but for all the world, I didn’t know how I was going to shop for my children on  what might well be my last Christmas with them.

As a general rule when you get diagnosed with bowel cancer, you  get your initial diagnosis, and then are sent off for a CT scan to “stage” it.  It comes in stages 1 to 4 (we pretty much knew by my tumour size that I would be 3 or 4), and 4 pretty much means you are toast.  And in my heart of hearts, I knew that  I would be stage 4, due to a nagging, stitch like pain I had developed over the area of my liver in the preceding few weeks.

From memory, we went Christmas shopping on a Tuesday.  And Friday, I had the appointment with the surgeon to find out the staging.  So, by the Tuesday when we went shopping, I had my life reduced to a matter of hours, or at the most days.  I could enjoy the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, before I found out it was all over on Friday.  I wasn’t in a very positive frame of mind to say the least.

So, Kez got a trolley and she steered it through Kmart.  She has two boys, so shopping for girls was going to be a challenge, but she gave it a red hot go while trying to keep me upright.  She held up things from all over the shop and said what about these, would the girls like these?  I either nodded no, or yes, mutely, and she chucked them in the trolley, four fold, one for each daughter.  Then she conveyed them all onto the registers and I just stuck my card through and paid.  We decided to have lunch, and I figured I might as well enjoy it, as I still had those three days, at least.  Those days I thought it might be my last “festive” season, but indeed, I didn’t KNOW.   And then, as i got in the car, and Kez packed away all the loot, I got a call from the surgeons secretary.  He was in receipt of my scans, and he wanted to see me sooner, would the next morning, first thing, be convenient?  I would have liked to have told her that no, it wouldn’t, that the universe was stealing all the good days and hours that I had left, but of course, I said I would come.  We sat mutely over lunch, each lost in our own silent hell.  It was, in Kez’s words, “an absolute shocker”.

Of course, I got my stage 4 diagnosis the next morning, as expected.  And if anyone had told me that I could endure what I did the in the year following, I wouldn’t have believed them.  If they had told me that I would be Christmas shopping the next year, as a person with hope, and even happiness, my word, I would have thought they were stark raving mad.

But today, I did exactly that.  Kez and I retraced our steps.  Same Kmart, same Target, same town for lunch.  This time I moved the trolley under my own steam.  She shopped for fellas, and me for girls.  I chose my kids own presents, and sometimes I even used statements like “next Christmas”, with all the belief in the world that I would have one.  Sometimes we even wandered to different parts of the store, without Kez having to worry I might try to strangle myself with some tinsel, or a set of Christmas lights.

Everyone thinks stage 4 cancer is the end.  You are told, in no uncertain terms, that one day, it certainly will be.  Stage 4 cancer is, by it’s very definition, terminal cancer.  So, I still have terminal cancer, but while still in the active stage of treatment, I still have a chance of living longer, and certainly, I am already living better.  Cancer still dominates my existence, with it’s very intensity, but it doesn’t steal the contentment from every single one of my days.  I’m still a work in progress, but learning to live with it  is possible, when it’s the only choice you have.

If you have a friend or relative who has just been diagnosed with cancer, especially at stage 4, share with them this blog.  I know how it feels, I’ll never ever forget it, but it doesn’t keep feeling the way it does in those early days.  I wish someone had told me that, but I probably wouldn’t have believed them.

Stage 4 cancer, one year on, looks like this:


It’s embracing a new “retro” style, that you always thought was “you”, but never quite had the courage to try.

Or, this:


It’s about having to spend the night in hospital, but lighting up all in sundry with a red lipstick and a new dress, that someone very kind sent you just to brighten up your day.

And this:


It’s about this.  Holding onto those you love, with all that you have.

And it’s about this:


It’s about seeing your much loved brother walk your niece down the aisle, and having someone else you can call “nephew”.  And enjoying a brilliant weekend away with all your family.

Stage 4 cancer is not the end.  And life is for living.  Get out there and live it – none of us know how long we’ve got, and there is not a minute to waste.

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