My mate Mike is the smartest guy in the room. An expert on stats, he described a phenomenon whereby people identify with numbers in a way that is convenient to them. For example if you hear that 80% of people earn more than $x per year, and you earn more than $x you’re likely to think “That sounds about right.” Whereas if you learn less than $x you’re more likely to think “It’s got to be more than 20%, surely?”
Similarly on people’s wedding day, neither the bride nor groom believe theirs is going to be one of the 33% of marriages that end in Splitsville.
I make this point because I think we believe we can defy stats. I know I did. I thought I could avoid what’s turned out to be my genetic destiny through my behaviour. For the last decade, I’ve felt healthy and looked after myself. Before my diagnosis, the likelihood of developing breast cancer seemed fairly remote, in spite of mum dying from it. I understood my chances to be about 1 in 8 (versus 1 in 12 for the general population) but conveniently I identified with the seven, and never the eighth.
Until mid-2013, I’d done a pretty good job of avoiding life’s slings and arrows. About 1 in 200 mothers my age have a baby with Downs’ Syndrome – not me. A surprising number of my demographic have addictions, to alcohol or maybe prescription medication – again, not me. I’d never even stayed the night in a hospital. I perceived the avoidance of suffering as a right. It was my modus operandi, my default, and I bet I’m not the only one. I was disgusted by my diagnosis. Cancer had no business making itself at home in my body, no business at all. I felt unlucky, but stopped short of saying “Why me?” because a primary school biology lesson could explain that one.
Now I’m one of the Others, things look and feel v-e-e-e-ry different (note: not worse). While I feel brutalised by life and betrayed by my body, and my ‘you never know’-o-meter is far more sensitive, my sense of appreciation, my love for others and my appetite for risk has never been keener.
As well as introducing you to extremes on the emotional spectrum, cancer is a catalyst for more fundamental life shifts. This isn’t always welcome, although arguably things turn out they way they ‘should’ have prior to the life-changing news
If friendships are dodgy or work isn’t working, or your heart’s not at home, the diagnosis exposes this almost instantly. I was fortunate to have foundations that proved solid, but for many cancer is, I think, more stressful because it puts you in these confronting positions. I reckon this quote does a nice job of explaining the way adversity brings out the truth.
It exposes the most raw, vulnerable and honest version of us. It can be unsettling, though, to look that deep into our soul and see who we really are. But it’s also profound. In fact, I think it’s necessary, because it’s where find our real voice. So we’d better come to peace with that version of us; and learn to respect and trust it.
Even if you’ve avoided severe adversity to date, life will send a wave your way and there are three things you can do when it does:
You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave.
Every time I’ve struggled, it’s because I was running from the wave, railing and thrashing against my reality. My keenness not to suffer forms part of my suffering – textbook entitled-Westerner response, I’m guessing. I tell myself to surrender, but still have dreadful days where I get all Verucca Salt-like.
Most of the time, though, I do try and go deep.
It’s hard down here. Sometimes I worry that I’m going crackers. I think of oddities, like Eleanor’s drawings. Why aren’t I in them, darling? Because you’re always at the doctors. I think of everything I have, the amount there is to lose. It helps me keep hold of my breath, even though I’m turning blue.
In just five treatments time, I will gather a last surge of energy and push up from the seabed. And I will breathe again.