111. Shaken

Happy Easter everyone.

Let's start with that, because it's a year later and I'm fine. Today I'll be singing hallelujahs into the church microphone and hide Easter eggs in the grass. 

But I'll push on with the serialisation. It seems that sticking with the time frame is the best way of giving you an idea of what it was like (even though I didn't know then, but we all know now, about the happy ending, what with Easter eggs in the grass and everything).

Easter fell later last year. The 5th of April was just an ordinary Saturday made extraordinary by the turn of events.


5 April 2014

I wake up in the morning and all is well, I feel rested, I feel fit and healthy - and isn't it quite nice to have an excuse to take things a bit easier in the weeks and months ahead? As far as excuses go, this one is pretty good.

But within an hour the weight in my stomach is back and I need to focus very hard in order to ignore the butterflies, the outbreaks of sweat, the over-conscious breathing that's just a bit too shallow, the loose stools.

I feel utterly, utterly shaken and I'm taken aback by the extent of it.

Perhaps my symptoms of nervousness (because it really does feel as if I'm about to step forward for a scary exam) is an expression of the ongoing uncertainty about the extent of my cancer.

But more than that, I think it's my body and mind protesting about this sudden change of perspective, the way my always-healthy body has deceived me (and if it can silently grow a cancer in my breast, what else could it grow, what else might not be what it seems?), the way I have suddenly and totally unexpectedly turned into a cancer patient.

My mind goes back to that night when I first felt the lump, only just a month ago. Possibilities flashed through my mind, but I never really believe that this could be anything but false alarm.

I am telling everyone.

I don't want this cancer diagnosis to be something to whisper about. I find that I want people to talk to me, ask me about it, not shy away. To make that happen, I need to help them by opening the door and being open myself. For a day or so I had thought that perhaps I would keep this quiet (the way I had kept all my initial investigations quiet) but I realised that, in any case, people will hear about it. It's better to tell them myself straight away.

I have come to the Buddhist temple in Milton Keynes for the afternoon.

I'm here to celebrate the Flower Festival, the birth of Buddha - but really, to sit and breathe in the profound spirituality of the temple, and to see my best friend and the resident nun.

The temple is buzzing with preparations when I arrive; I find the nun in the temple room itself. I have known her since I was 19 and she in her early 30s, quiet but with a very strong core, working with the other monks and nuns who had arrived in England from Japan to build the Peace Pagoda. Now, she runs the temple on her own, with many volunteers helping her.

We hugged, sat down, bowed to the Buddha and to each other, smiling broadly. Then her face turned compassionate. (My best friend must have told her.)

"I've written your name," she says, gesturing to the ancient Japanese writing on the shrine, surrounded by flowers and incense. "I've been making offerings every day."

It brings sudden tears to my eyes.

The nun has grown radiant in her older years. The monks and nuns live by example; they rarely preach or counsel, so when they do, it feels like a precious gift.

"This is what happens to human beings," she says. "Suffering. This is the path we must follow. You must be strong. It is also beautiful."

I know this, but it helps me so much, hearing it from her. Because I know that when she speaks of being strong, she doesn't mean it in the way many people do. She doesn't mean putting a brave face on it, keeping the show on the road.

When she speaks of our inevitable suffering, she isn't being a pessimist, but a realist. My task is to find a positive way of living with this reality.

She is talking of a profound acceptance that whatever happens to our bodies, our lives, our loves, doesn't change our core, our spirit.

An acceptance that life's changes and trials are part of life's journey, and our acceptance of this, living it without anger, but connecting with all other beings, is life's beauty and my strength.

To be continued...

The lovely nun (centre, holding my baby son in 1998; my best friend on the right)