Advance or Retreat
I probably shouldn’t joke about it, but I feel like I died and went to heaven. I am on retreat for five days in a beautiful corner of Kent where a Buddhist couple has created a haven of mindfulness and healing. There is an infrared sauna (soooo good for cancer), a spa, swimming pool and on hand practitioners offering holistic therapies like massage, yoga, acupuncture and reflexology. I am having two fully organic juices delivered twice a day and just got back from the local organic farm shop where there were so many things I could eat I considered moving here permanently. Having scoured the land for somewhere I could rest, write and eat at the same time, I found a place an hour from home with room at the inn at a few days notice.
I need this. The past five weeks (since last I blogged) have been brimful with dramas and new developments. We had a lunch party at the start of the summer holidays to thank some friends for all their support since my diagnosis and, riding the wave of my amazing scan results, I felt radiant with wellness. So much so I celebrated with John by going out for dinner and eating chunky chips, my first carbs for eight months.
The next day I was bent double in piercing agony for several hours, convinced it was punishment for the chunky chips and unable to protect Gabriella from the situation. John was out at first so she was trying to be my nurse by giving me cuddles and sips of water, but try as I might I couldn’t stop screaming. I think it will be one of those indelible childhood memories when, witnessing her mother’s naked fallibility, her sense of security was shaken like the foundations of an old building in an earthquake.
“Are you going to die Mummy?” she asked through streaming tears when she realised her nursing skills were not making me better.
“No sweetie,” I assured her, “I just need to go to hospital. You’re being very brave and helpful. It’s going to be ok.”
Before too long I was in an ambulance on high doses of morphine, which were doing nothing to alleviate the pain.
“It’s not fucking working,” I yelled at the marvelous paramedic. “Give me something else!”
“I’ll give you ten quid if you can think of a swear word I haven’t heard before,” he smiled, injecting me with IV paracetemol to see if it would take the edge off. Which it did. “I think you’ve got kidney stones,” he conjectured, “and they are one of the most painful things you can have. Worse than child birth.”
“Really?!” I exclaimed, more at God than the paramedic. “I have Stage Four cancer and now you want me to deal with kidney stones?”
“If you have Stage Four cancer Mrs Sabbage,” the paramedic responded, “you better pray this is kidney stones.”
“Good point!” I laughed, grateful for this gentle man shifting my entire perspective in a sentence while adding some anti-nausea medicine to my IV.
And kidney stones it was. I passed one that day and, after a night in A & E, they sent me home with drugs to manage the pain until the one still lodged in my kidney made the same excruciating bid for freedom.
Cut a long story short, I was still in pain two weeks later and eventually saw a wonderful urologist who offered to either remove it through a procedure called lithotripsy or surgically following a general anesthetic. He and my GP wanted to do the latter and, although I didn’t want to put my body through that, I was too tired to trust my instincts or stand for what I wanted. So twenty-four hours later I found myself in the operating room weeping with remorse, silently apologizing to my war-torn body as yet another cannula pricked my weary veins before the anesthetic surged through my bloodstream and a 5mm stone was extracted from my urethra.
I had the blues for a week after that. Partly it was a general anesthetic hangover, but more than that it was self-recrimination. After nine months of making really tough choices about my cancer, including refusing to have my brain radiated, I let the doctors make my choices for me. It may not seem like a big deal, but I believe that my hitherto unwavering commitment to discern, intuit and trust my own judgment on my journey with cancer is the single most decisive reason why I am alive today. I have remained a person first and a patient second, a warrior of the spirit not a casualty of the body, the master of my life not the servant of my circumstance.
On this occasion I betrayed my own trust. I hurt my integrity more than my body (as far as I’m aware) and it knocked me sideways. At first I thought I’d been dozy on this one because it wasn’t about my cancer. Somehow it had crept up on me when I was sleeping or looking the other way. Then I remembered asking my urologist under what conditions he would recommend surgery if, as I had been told in hospital, the stone might come out naturally within a couple of weeks or even days.
“If the patient is going abroad, is in a lot of pain or has a limited life span,” he answered.
And there it was. The moment I cratered and handed him my authority like a kid in the playground giving her lunch to the school bully. He assumed my life span was limited. He knew I had cleared all my metastases and was down to my primary tumour, but he still saw a terminal patient with no hope of outrunning the statistics. In his impressive professionalism, compelling charm and genuine compassion, he wrote me off. No. I let him write me off. I let ‘limited life span’ unravel my slowly solidifying faith in my own judiciousness like a ball of string rolling down a hillside while I held one end between my thumb and forefinger. I was once again a certain goner who may as well relieve myself of some temporary pain so I can enjoy what time I have left. That was the story I bought into. That was why I let them operate. And that was why I got the blues.
Ironically, I am in the thick of writing a book about how to navigate your cancer journey with courage, wisdom and autonomy. The kidney stone saga put me two weeks behind on my deadline and led me to question why I was writing it at all. There are so many books out there about cancer already. What possible value can I add, especially when I had just sold my own autonomy down the river like cheap wine? My editor assured me that passing kidney stones was a necessary part of birthing my book and my therapist assured me my readers would be relieved to know that I screw things up sometimes. Haha. Sometimes? More times than I can count.
Today, as I return to my book, a new landscape is visible. It is taller than advocating for your needs as a patient and wider than preserving your personhood when the word ‘cancer’ is etched across your forehead. It rolls out to a shimmering horizon where the highest level of self-destruction rests not with the mistakes we make but the way we respond to those mistakes, the way we condemn our fallibility and fail to forgive ourselves.
So here I am on retreat, giving myself five days to write the chapters I’m behind on, clear the toxins I have recently accumulated, revise my protocols (now I know that mega doses of Vitamin C plus a restrictive diet have put an unsustainable strain on my kidneys) and cradle my perfectly imperfect humanity in the arms of absolution.
Only problem is I don’t like the word ‘retreat’, which contains as much pulling back and disengaging as finding a quiet place of peace. So let’s say I am here on advance. Advancing my book, launching my new website, going forwards into a future some say I am insane to invest in, rising above all that has fallen and engaging wholeheartedly with the difficult events, adamant dreams and unyielding truths from which it is futile to retreat.
Now that’s my place of peace.