No Camellias Please


It’s been four months since my diagnosis. We’re all well and truly ‘over’ cancer. If only I were well and truly over cancer.

When you’re first diagnosed everyone goes into shock. There’s a rush of thoughtful gifts and flowers and offers of help. There’s cards and kind sentiments on Facebook and the sudden reappearance of long lost friends.

Fairly quickly most people return to their own lives and their own struggles, keeping in touch from time to time to see how you’re going, and the people that are your very close friends figure out what their role will be in this united front against a horrible disease.

But now I’m feeling like a five year old on a long car journey. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

I want my life to be mundane again. I’m sick of being sick.

I remember the first time I saw Camille, the glorious old Greta Garbo movie. It would have been television and probably a Sunday afternoon, when the local station was fond of showing ‘classic cinema’. How I loved Hollywood’s golden age. I’d swoon at the romance and the clothes, and Fred. But I really didn’t like Camille the first time I saw it. She dies? What do you mean she dies! What kind of a movie is this? Where is my happy ending? Up until that point in my short life I’d grown accustomed to the type of movie where, no matter how bad things had become, there was always a U-turn in the last twenty minutes that guaranteed a cheerful and reassuring outcome. Nice things happened to nice people and bad people ended up dead or worse.  I didn’t understand the appeal of a movie that ended in a tragic death.

What curious creatures we are, paying to watch the slow demise of a beautiful woman and to weep collectively over her untimely death. What’s that about? It fascinates me that we should enjoy tragedy. What is it about the human psyche that makes us want to vicariously experience the misery of others. Perhaps it’s a case of giving us some perspective on our comparatively minor troubles. I know that my diagnosis has caused me to refocus on what’s really important in my life but it’s interesting how often friends comment that it’s had the same effect on them.

Perhaps the thing about someone else’s tragedy is that it reminds us that we are all temporary and it give us the motivation to put plans into action. Friends have finally taken that big trip, started the renovations and cleaned the junk out of the garage (both literally and metaphorically) and told us that it was my cancer that motivated them to get started.

Perhaps we enjoy tragedy because we’re hard wired to do so. It turns out we get measurable physical and emotional benefits from caring about other people, and watching someone else’s tragedy might stimulate that benefit. The vagus nerve that connects our brain to our vital organs, including our heart, is the calming half of the systems that triggers our fight or flight response. If cortisol and adrenalin are what winds us up then it’s the vagus nerve that soothes us. If it’s not functioning well it effects everything from our digestion to our sex drive. It’s probably the reason that helping depressive people to care for others can be of so much benefit to them.

It turns out, ironically, that selfishness is bad for you. Research into the function of the vagus nerve is showing that even meditating on good things happening to other people can improve your health. The power of prayer appears to be in the benefit to the person praying, rather than the object of their prayer.

All this matters when you’re unwell because it helps you to welcome the assistance that other people give you and to recognise that their generosity is rewarded with better ‘vagal tone’. It’s good for us to help each other. For someone like me that worries about ‘being a burden’ or inconveniencing others it’s helpful to know this.

Even so, I’m not really cut out for the role of romantic heroine, although I now have a much greater appreciation of the appeal of this role. Sympathy can be addictive! When you’re the object of sympathy you can say and do as you please without too many concerns about sanction or retribution. Everything rude or inappropriate can be attributed to your condition. “You’ll have to excuse her, she’s fighting cancer.” I recognise how easy it would be to provide people with the noble, tragic figure that deserves their admiration. “She’s so brave!” they would say, as I recline on the couch in my silk gown with my hand to my forehead. So tragic. Such a waste. Surrounded by my adoring family and my loving friends I would gaze off into the distance, say something profound and then gently close my eyes for the last time. Roll credits. Not a dry eye in the house.

There’s only a couple of things wrong with this scenario.

Firstly, I’d be dead. Dead is dead. No curtain call for my brilliant, tragic final scene. No waiting for the reviews. Dead.

Secondly, real death is never romantic. Not ever. Not one bit.

I’ve seen more death than most people thanks to my previous occupation. Some of it was sudden and some of it was expected but none of it involved elegant women in silk gowns surrounded by beautiful camellias from their adoring suitors. That stuff only happens in movies.

I helped my Mum nurse my Dad through the last stages of cancer. That’s about as unromantic as it gets. Cancer steals everything before it kills you; your appetite, your vigour, your humour and towards the end, your dignity and your mind. It’s messy and distressing and there’s no film crew with vaseline on the lens to soften the reality.

I am very fortunate to be surrounded by people that refuse to feel sorry for me. My close friend, Jacqui, shocked diners in a restaurant last week when she said, “That’s enough about you and your cancer. We’re all so OVER that!” My friend, Murray, was booked in for minor surgery for haemorrhoids (could there be a less romantic condition) and quipped, “That’s the end of your cancer halo. Everyone’s going to be paying attention to me next week.” On days when I’m becoming self indulgent and feeling sorry for myself, as opposed to genuinely and appropriately sad, my beautiful husband will usually say something like, “Planning on dying today are we?”

We’ve had pragmatic conversations about finances and funerals and organising power of attorney but that’s very different to feeding a sympathy addiction. Planning for a bush fire doesn’t mean we’ll get one. Planning for death doesn’t mean it’s imminent. Although, of course, we are all going to die at some point so it’s sensible to make plans.

So far I’m coping extremely well with treatment. On my last visit to the oncologist she called me “lucky”. I responded that I was working very hard to be this lucky. There’s a whole strategy here. It includes diet and exercise and doing exactly what my doctors have told me to do. It also involves what I call ‘the head game’, keeping my thinking in a place that promotes my recovery and improves my chances at a long and happy life.

For me, a big part of the head game is not falling prey to the appeal of sympathy, although I can certainly understand the appeal of having everyone feel sorry for me. It’s like sitting in the middle of a circle of other people’s energy. They care about you. You soak it up. You reward them with another reason to feel sorry for you.

When I look around I can think of at least a couple of people that live their whole lives this way. They will never be truly well. Their disease, or diseases, define them. I used to wonder why some people were not just sick all the time, but felt the need to always talk about how sick they were. Now I think I understand. When you’re a parent you figure out why children are behaving a certain way by asking “What is the reward for that behaviour?” It’s only recently occurred to me that this applies to dysfunctional behaviour in adults too.

There are ‘rewards’ to being obviously and seriously ill. It’s so much easier to say “I’m unwell.” rather than “I choose not to.” But why would you need to be sick to do exactly as you please? Surely it would be better to be healthy and learn to be assertive. Of course, you’d get no sympathy being healthy and your relationships with other people would need to operate on the basis of mutual caring, rather than everything flowing towards you.

I don’t mean to denigrate those that are genuinely, seriously ill.  If you are sick and you need help then of course you should ask for it.  I’m getting my head around something else here. Some people seem to be defined my their illness.

One of my closest friends has been fighting a serious disease for most of her life. She’s spent good chunks of that life wondering if she’d make it to the following Christmas. She’s had countless surgeries, a colostomy bag, and all manner of complications to deal with. There are no national charities for her condition. No fund raising campaigns or parties of people in matching outfits with stories of survival. She and her family fought this alone.

Here’s the thing. I had no idea about her condition for the first five years of our friendship. I found out about her illness when I gave her some mandarines from my garden and she wanted to explain why she needed to peel every bit of pith away from each segment. This woman is one of the most joyful people I know. She does not want anyone’s sympathy. She’s too busy being as healthy as she can be, laughing, singing, enjoying great food and wine with her deservedly large circle of friends. If she didn’t already have so many ‘best friends’ I would want that spot. Her condition is serious, and often life threatening and it is highly likely that her life will be shortened because of it but she chooses to focus on living rather than dying and that includes not talking about her health unless it’s necessary and relevant. She does not want my sympathy. Just my love and my friendship. She has both. She also knows that if she need my help to fight her disease I’ll do everything I possibly can for her.

She’s my inspiration right now. I want to be as healthy as I can be. Not just ‘cancer free’ but HEALTHY! Wouldn’t it be great if my cancer wasn’t just an opportunity to shed the insignificant and unhealthy from my life, but an opportunity to be healthier and happier than I’ve ever been.

So please don’t feel sorry for me. Cheer me on. Make me laugh. Take me walking or drive me to chemotherapy or help weed the garden. Keep seeing me as ME and not as my disease. Reward my courage and my strength and make fun of me when I slip into self-indulgent self-pitying miasmas. It clears the fog.

No camellias please. I have no intention of dying just yet.


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