On Friday night, Dave and I went and saw the comedian Lawrence Mooney do his live show at the Brisbane Powerhouse. It was a superb show – equal parts hilarious, clever, thought-provoking, inappropriate and downright rude. The underlying premise of the show is about Mooney and his brothers travelling to England to bury their uncle and settle his affairs. Early on in the set, he made the observation that whilst our bodies are amazingly good at sending pain signals to our brain as soon as we stub our toe or paper cut our finger, they are totally shit at giving us even the slightest hint that we have a golf ball sized tumour growing in one of our kidneys. The audience laughed – most of them a bit reservedly (because: cancer) and then he came in with the killer (pardon the pun) part of the story. I’m paraphrasing here, but something along the lines of given the stats, and how our bodies seem so focussed on stubbed toes and paper cuts rather than serious ailments, he pointed out that there was likely to be at least one, if not more, people sitting in the audience with terminal cancer who didn’t know it yet. He put it out there, and let it sit. Most people laughed, but that sort of nervous titter that quiets off very quickly, whereas I had a good, deep belly laugh. Because he’s right, and because I had my check-up last week, and so as far as medical science and I know, that person sitting in the audience with undiagnosed terminal cancer was not me.
But listening and looking around and people laughing so hesitantly and nervously about cancer really tickled my fancy. Cancer is a club that nobody wants to join, and people are so fearful of it (rightly so, it’s fucking terrifying) that they dare not tempt fate by laughing too fulsomely at a cancer joke. The week before I’d been a guest speaker at a day-long forum for people with breast cancer. Looking out into the audience full of bald heads, scarves and wigs, I was struck by a distinct feeling of belonging, of knowing and of connection. I didn’t need to explain or contextualise my story for these people, because it was each of their story too. I didn’t have to use analogies to try to describe the emotional pain of diagnosis, I could just go right in and talk about that pain, and how I came out the other end of it. I didn’t need to detail how the fear at the beginning was so all-consuming, because they too had been consumed by that same demon; in fact some of them were still being ruminated in the belly of the best, not yet regurgitated out in a form barely resembling their previous self. So I talked, and I talked, told jokes about missing breasts and being high on pethidine, and they laughed big, jolly, guttural laughs. I connected with these people, because they are my tribe.
It was an epiphany of sorts to realise that these people, mostly women whose breasts once delivered pleasure and joy and sustenance for babies, but who had subsequently been chopped and poisoned and burned, are now my people. What’s between us is unspoken – a knowing. After my speech I stood in line to grab a coffee at morning tea, and had the most raw conversation with Trish, whose wig looked so bloody good that I was totally fooled, and whose taste buds are so destroyed that she didn’t care what sort of cake she had with her coffee. She wanted cake though, because it’s cake and she’d made the huge effort to be out and about when her body was screaming at her give in and get into bed and not get out until her next chemo treatment. I told her the chocolate one looked dodgy and she should definitely have the pecan, mostly because I have working taste buds and wanted the chocolate one. Later I talked to Ros, who couldn’t work out how to use her bloody iPhone so I typed the URL of this blog into Safari for her and set up a bookmark. I didn’t wonder why a grown woman couldn’t use her own phone. During chemo I crashed my car into a fence because my brain simply forgot how to drive.
The theme of my speech at the forum was ‘moving on’. I prepared a whole presentation on the subject beforehand, but it wasn’t until I stood there on that day, in front of all the cancer peeps, that I realised that finding a good head space after cancer is actually more about moving in than moving on. Moving on implies that you can leave cancer behind, without a backward glance. I don’t think that’s possible – it’s just too big a thing to pop in a cupboard along with your ab crunch machine and cake pop maker. Instead, I think you need to move in to the tribe, the been there, done that, still doing it, have the missing bits to prove it gang, and find your peace. Look around and see your common pain, and know that you aren’t alone, and you will never be alone in your experience. Admitting that what happened to you actually fucking happened, and to varying degrees is still happening, and that you now belong in this group, you will always belong in this group, is about moving in, in order to move on.
Two days after speaking at the forum, I opened a bank account so that we can save for a trip to Europe in 2017. That’s the year Dave will turn 50, and I will reach the holy grail of cancer – five years in remission. Before the forum, before I had my public epiphany, I would not have suggested to Dave we plan such a trip, let alone open a bank account specifically to fund it. But by accepting that I am a cancer person, and that I’ll always be part of the tribe, I have taken a big step towards moving in, and thereby moving on.
Great post Julie. I’m so glad that you are at the point where you can plan ahead, and shall start working on my list of things you can bring me back. I hear Belgium is good for chocolate.
You know that it’d never make it out of the country if it was in my possession. I could bring you mangoes though …
I love this post, it’s a bit like grief, in moves in with you, rears it’s painful head when you least expect it to remind you of what once was and then moves on until next time. I’ve glad that the positive from this shitty experience is that you’ve found your tribe and that my dear is a silver lining.
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Thanks Nanette. The realisation was a long time coming, but I got there!