For the past four years, I’ve had a CT scan every twelve weeks to monitor the cancer’s progress. I joke that I’ll die of radiation poisoning before I die of cancer, and one year when the tumours were in retreat, the radiographer took the threat seriously. Then the tumour cavalry appeared on the horizon and the cancer advanced again, so we stayed at twelve weeks and watched the skirmish unfold.
The scan itself is no longer arduous and I don’t feel ‘invaded’ like I once did. I trust the radiography team, I’ve made friends with the machines, and drinking a lot of water thirty minutes before the scan is uncomfortable, but easily remedied afterwards. Having dye injected that makes you feel like you’ve peed yourself is sadly, something I’ve gotten used to; I’ve even stopped worrying if I really have.
The scan report goes to the oncologist, and then to the cancer team for discussion. The radiographer’s expression is always professionally deadpan, the only time his mask slipped was when two huge embolisms showed in my lung, and he called a nurse to escort me to the hospital ward for emergency clot-busting drugs. I had no idea they were there, no symptoms, and they frightened me more than the cancer. Those things can kill you.
Waiting a week for scan results is difficult and something I have given up trying to master. Cancer causes worry no matter how many ‘positive’ quotes tell you otherwise. I know I can’t change the course of events but that doesn’t stop me hoping I won’t be more incurable than I was before. The only balm brought by familiarity is not needing to face the music until it starts to play; I’m well until they tell me otherwise, and this might be my last week of being well. If you think that’s a crazy thing to hang on too, then welcome to my world.
Results Morning dawns with a feeling of impending doom. The oncologist will phone at noon. Keep busy keep busy! Drinking too many cups of tea too quickly gives the equivalent of a coffee buzz, and in a blitz of activity, the house gets dusted and swept, the toilets bleached, cutlery drawer tidied and ten things listed on eBay. Applying lipstick makes me feel more in control (why?) but then I chew my lip and it all comes off. I look at the clock, check the phone to make sure it is working and do the newspaper crossword, then the Sudoku puzzle, then abandon Sudoku and start on the wordsearch. Check the clock again, check the phone again, and start prepping dinner. In the middle of trying to stop cheese sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan the phone rings. With arms outstretched twixt pan and landline, I answer with my best, nonchalant telephone voice.
“Hello Elaine” says the oncologist “how are you?
“Umm, you have my scan results so you tell me” I reply, and then, thinking that sounded a bit rude I add “how are you?”
The oncologist knows me well enough not to waste precious seconds on small talk (that’ll come afterwards) and he quickly translates the scan results.
“All is well.”
I imagine him leaning slightly forward in his chair to see the laptop screen better, one manicured hand resting on his chino trouser leg while the other steadies against the edge of the desk. And I breathe out.
“There are no new tumours, the lesion on your liver hasn’t changed, and the only remarkable note is the stomach lymph nodes are continuing to get larger.”
“How much larger” I ask anxiously.
He gives me millimetre sizes, and sensing my lack of comprehension, compares millimetres to vegetables so I have a better idea of my stomach node sizes. They were peas and now they are radishes. We discuss many things in foodie terms and the pea-to-radish ratio makes sense to me; the oncologist and I bonded over a shared interest in what we eat. We agree to continue with my current tablet treatment rather than returning to the higher infection risk of chemotherapy, continue to monitor the nodes, which are impossible to biopsy, and speak again in a few weeks time.
The scan showed things are no better and not a lot worse, which these days we call ‘good’. So, if all is good, why am I not happy? I should be waving flags, phoning everyone and popping champagne corks! But I’m not doing that because where my health is concerned, good mean precarious and it also means bad is simply postponed. I’m not being pessimistic I’m being realistic, if a tad gloomy. For some stupid reason I expect the scan to show improvement, as if someone has worked out a way to cure incurable. It won’t sink into my thick head that no progress is as good as it will ever get, that not being any worse is the best-case scenario. I am not grateful enough, and I probably never will be. I am angry. I am angry I have cancer.
Full of anger I get in the car and make the short drive up to Bruce. The frothy white swathes of cow parsley swaying in the grass verges, the hawthorn blossom, the deep pink wild campion flowers don’t soothe me like they did yesterday. I drive past the swans on the river, viewing it all without actually noticing any of it, hands gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white.
At the stables, I get out of the car, pick up Bruce’s halter from the tackroom and stomp down to the field where he’s nibbling the remains of today’s strip-grazed grass ration. He looks at me sideways, lowers his head and walks over, fat belly swaying like a galleon in full sail. I offer the halter and he drops his nose, not into the noseband but on to my cheek. He breathes, sighs, and as I lean into his sweet grass breath, he caresses my skin with his whiskers. I close my eyes and we stand, nose to cheek in the afternoon sunshine, not knowing which is horse breath and which is human. Then, without warning, a huge slippery wet tongue comes out from between his soft pink lips and in one long sweep, he licks from my neck to my hairline. I open my eyes and see him looking down at me, his deep, honest eyes slightly cloudy with senior cataracts but still twinkling with incorrigible Irish humour. And I love him. And I love life. Again.