Sunday, 3 August 2014

25. Going up the mountain

I keep thinking of a story I once heard. It went something like this.

A traveller wanted to go up a mountain and hired some local villagers to help him carry his luggage. Having made good progress during the first few days, the villagers suddenly put down the luggage and refused to go any further. They simply sat down, chatted, relaxed. When asked why they had stopped, they answered:

"We are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies."

It is four months since my cancer diagnosis, and I finally feel as if my mind has caught up with my body. But my soul?

Perhaps that is why I have felt so very tired and incapacitated in the past few months. Perhaps all those days (no, weeks) lying in bed, motionless, unable to work or run a household or read or listen to others, were simply a necessary wait for my soul to catch up.

Yes, of course, there was the physical aftermath of surgery. I had underestimated how long it takes to recover from a general anaesthetic. But was it normal that two weeks after the lumpectomy, I still spent up to 15 hours of each day asleep, when I normally count myself lucky with six or seven? Was it normal to find it so hard to function, to think straight, to breathe?

When I asked my surgeon about this, her answer was thought-provoking.

"Yes, that is normal," she said. "I hear this a lot from women who've had a lumpectomy for cancer. But I don't get the same complaints from women whose lump was benign. They seem to recover much more quickly from surgery."

Thought-provoking, because presumably the operation and anaesthetic are the same, whether the lump is cancerous or not.

My body has been racing up the mountain that is cancer and loss.

I have been trying to hurry my mind along, consciously focusing on myself alone, unable to think of anything else. Trying to get my head around the fact that I have cancer. Writing a diary and a blog has helped me: that has always been my way.

Others will have their own ways. Some people's way of making their mind and soul catch up may even be to not think, talk or write about their cancer at all, but rather, to focus on the minutiae of daily life or to go back to work as soon as possible.

This week, I suddenly feel as if my mind has arrived.

I suddenly feel able to read books again, to keep thoughts in my head that are not cancer-related, to hear other people's stories. I even feel an unexpected desire to go back to work and be normal again. (I won't. I am on annual leave for the entire month of August.)

My energy levels are returning, slowly but steadily. I have carried the shopping, cooked meals, gone for long walks. I know it will all be undone once the chemo starts, but it gives me hope that one day, things will be normal again.

(Although "normal" has become rather difficult to define. You being tired all the time, that is now normal, my younger daughter said recently.)

I don't know whether my soul has caught up yet.

The transition from healthy woman to cancer patient really does take an enormous amount of time and energy. I think I am making progress. I am no longer startled by the fact that I have breast cancer.

I was a different person, having a scan four months ago and having a couple of scans this week. Back then, it felt like an unreal experience. Surely that wasn't me, lying in that machine wearing a hospital gown?

Now, I am much more at home being a patient. The uncertainties are the same (both times, the scans were done in order to search for any cancer hot spots). The difference is that now, I am much more accepting that life contains such uncertainties.

What have I done to help my soul catch up?

Probably this: sitting quietly, being on my own, meditating, swimming, sewing, listening to the rustling trees.

And also this: hearing myself say it out loud. Reading back what I have written. I have cancer. That is another reason why I am talking so much about it all, and publishing my thoughts online.

All this is hard work. It may not sound like work, but oh, it is.

I have had to excuse myself from my responsibilities as a mother, friend or employee.

Now that I am feeling better, now that my mind is clearing, now that my soul is catching up, I wish I could return to base camp and put cancer behind me. I wish I could simply look up at the mountain I have scaled and sigh with satisfaction: been there, done that. But I can't.

There is such a long climb still ahead of me.

I am about to pick up my luggage and set off again, up the treacherous slopes of chemotherapy. Before I know it, my body will be off into the thunderous clouds.

I just hope there will be space to stop and wait for my soul along the way.

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