In the evenings the kidneys came. The helicopter, a bright yellow, would land on the grey cement disc, its blades chopping slower, slower, slow — stop. People in blue scurried from an opening in the building and ran towards the aircraft, hauling from it boxes and bags. These containers held hearts, lungs, livers. The organs were brought into the body of the main building then dispatched in all directions.
I could see all this from the high window of my room in Siena. I also saw spectacular Tuscan sunsets, and if it weren’t for the chunky, rounded plastic furniture in the room and the drips in my arms, I would have thought I was in a smart hotel. But I was in hospital, and though I hadn’t needed organs the doctors had given me blood — six packets of it, over as many days.
On holiday in Italy, I had suffered from dizziness and breathlessness while walking, and my friends had urged me to take a blood test. The test showed a shockingly low haemoglobin count. I was driven to the Pronto Soccorso — the Italian A&E — immediately. Over the next few days, via scans and tests, the doctors discovered a malignant tumour that was pressing on organs in my stomach and causing me to lose blood. I had — have — colon cancer.
I flew back to London as soon as I could. Further diagnosis by the NHS revealed that I also had blood clots in the lungs, quite common with cancer patients. Now I need to inject myself with blood thinner every day, while also monitoring my haemoglobin levels. Meanwhile I’m waiting for my chemotherapy to start. I am 40, a young age to get colon cancer, and because my mother had the same disease, the doctors have asked me to check with a geneticist as to whether it’s hereditary.
What does one do when one’s world crashes during two weeks in September? Once you are discovered to have cancer, the adjective most people use for you is ‘brave’. But I do not feel brave. Cancer is something in you, inside your body, and — short of exploding in fear — there’s nothing you can do except sit with it. Yet such is the aura around cancer that all those who get it are automatically regarded as courageous victims. I am neither courageous nor a victim. I have gone through days of emotional numbness, bouts of self-pity, tumults of rage and fear. I have spent almost an hour screaming on the phone, shrieking down the line at a helpless friend. ‘I don’t want it, I don’t want it,’ I cried. Mostly, I just feel terribly sad. A part of me still can’t believe this is happening. Any minute now, the alarm clock will ring. Or perhaps I could unzip my body and step out of it with a new one.
I have found that cancer can prey on the mind even more than the body, and that this is where the real challenge lies. As the days passed and I learnt more details of my illness, suddenly the world took on a terrible turn. I would walk down a crowded street and think, ‘How happy these people are, to be cancer-free’, and my heart would sink. My universe had become a bipolar one of cancer and non-cancer. I would eat a slice of fruit and consider, ‘How many more times will I taste this?’ I would hug a dear friend and a mental trapdoor would open — how many more times, how many more times? I would look at people and things in terms of what I couldn’t and could have, and if I could, for how long?
I am sure I will still often see the world in those terms, and that it’s entirely natural to do so. Yet I am trying to separate myself from that. I am not my cancer and it does not define me. I may have to adapt the way I live, perhaps in drastic ways, given the extent of my illness. But it doesn’t reshape my universe or my consciousness. I am not saying this in a brave way, but in a matter-of-fact way. I am saying it because it’s true.
One of the strangest things about cancer is that, because it lies on the cellular level, many people with the disease, even in its advanced stages, look normal. Many patients now on the latest chemo drugs suffer few side effects and don’t lose their hair. I have become thinner and nobody would describe my complexion as ruddy, but as I queue at the local Sainsbury’s, you wouldn’t think that I had just had an appointment with my oncologist. It’s no fun self-injecting every day and always feeling anxious about my blood count, but I am not in any pain. After my return to the UK, I had to spend one night in an A&E ward as they monitored my blood clots, and during that time I was mostly untethered, free from drips or medical machines. The nurses let me wander about as I pleased. In the bed in front of me, however, was a woman admitted for alcohol poisoning who vomited throughout the night amid terrifying wails of agony. To my left was a man who emitted moans that I will never forget.
I knew that I had by far the gravest malady in that ward and — let’s face it — am probably the one closest to mortality. I knew their conditions were acute while mine is chronic. Yet I was struck by the dichotomy between the panic that normally surrounds cancer, and what is actually happening at any given moment. It’s part of the semi-surreal world of having this illness.
I am supposed to ‘fight’ cancer. I do know what people mean when they say that — you must overcome the disease. Believe me, I intend to. I love life and I want much, much more of it, as many years and decades as I can. Yet I think of the nature of this disease and how, in fact — especially in the case of colon cancer, which is slow-growing — it takes years to develop. I have had cancer without knowing it. In recent months when I thought I was fatigued and could not understand why I struggled to get back on an even keel, I was already battling the sickness. Every time I got a stomach ache and attributed it purely to stress and tried to cope, I was clashing with an unknown enemy. I am intensely relieved that I have finally found out what is wrong, and can look at my condition in its true form.
Is the moment that you discover you have cancer the moment that you ‘get’ it, or the moment that you release it? I feel as though I was fighting before. I am healing now.
Clarissa Tan is a staff writer at The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012