It is November, 2004. I am cycling on the road up Mount Victoria Pass, one of the steepest and longest climbs in New South Wales. I am feeling very fit and in a few months’ time will undertake another long bicycle ride to Central Australia. Uluru is beckoning me once again. The cyst at the side of my neck will need to be removed before I go. It is becoming a little awkward turning my head side to side. Mental note: I will make an appointment to see the GP soon and have it removed.
A few days later and the GP is taking a prolonged look at the cyst. “A blood test seems in order,” she says. I think no more about it. I have a defence of my thesis to think about.
A few more days elapse. I am back at the GP surgery to arrange for the removal of the cyst, a couple of days off the bike perhaps, no great interruption to the schedule.
“I’m sending you to a haematologist” she says, “you have lymphoma …it’s treatable”. Not quite what I was expecting, but not entirely surprising either. Five years as a chaplain to an oncology ward and a hospice meant that I never entertained the idea that I was bullet proof. I had never seen cancer as something that only happened to other people. In fact, I rather thought that this was a likely scenario for me. What did surprise me, however, was how well I felt for someone with a life-threatening illness. I had mainly ministered to people in advanced stages of cancer, people who definitely looked as though life was ebbing away. How could I be so fit and feeling so well when, as the haematologist put it, I was ‘’life threateningly ill’’?
Over the ensuing four months I was given six administrations of the strangely named CHOP chemotherapy. This was an utterly miserable time: a time bearable only because the haematologist expressed the opinion that I could respond to the treatment and regain my physical and mental health. The chemotherapy had depleted my body and clouded my mind. Without this expression of optimism from the haematologist, I probably would have declined treatment. Walking in wilderness areas, pursuing doctoral research (an ongoing hobby of mine) and active participation are pursuits that enrich my life. Having them taken from me by the illness I would have found intolerable.
In 2010 I relapsed (ironically while cycling to Alice Springs). This was déjà vu. The treatment was a bone marrow transplant requiring three weeks in hospital. Currently, I am still in remission.
I am sometimes asked what it is like to be a cancer patient. I say sometimes, because many people want to see me as their idea of a cancer patient. I have at times had to define myself to people. Here is a generalised conversation.
Person: Isn’t it wonderful that they have saved your life.
Mel: I really don’t know, because no one has saved my life; I am going to die (a real conversation stopper, so further explanation is required). My life has been extended. For that I am grateful, but I put that qualification on it. I need to have in the forefront of my mind that I am mortal. I need this to establish priorities in my life. I set two year plans nowadays. Would you like to hear the latest one?
The ‘bucket’ list is another topic of conversation.
Person: What is life like post cancer. I guess there have been big changes?
Mel: Not really, life post cancer is pretty much the same as life pre cancer. (This often ushers in bewilderment).
Person: You are not suggesting that cancer has had little impact on your life are you?
Mel: Certainly not. Cancer has given me the most miserable experiences of my life, by far. When I had chemotherapy I lost much of my mental alertness. That was a terrifying experience. Trying to read and not remembering the content of the previous paragraph and wondering if that capacity would return was hideous. I rely much in life on the power of my will. That ebbed away with my mental functioning. At times death seemed a much more acceptable option. Then again, the recovery of these faculties was nothing short of exhilarating. So the cancer experience was profound. But it wasn’t a game changer. Coming to faith for me, an event that happened when I was twenty or so was the game changer.
Person: OK, so what was the experience of cancer for you, if not a game changer? There must be something profound about the experience? (People I found are keen to hear the success stories, the ‘battles’, beating cancer etc.)
Mel: The profound aspect about the cancer experience for me was the reassurance that I was on the right path in life. It was a consolidating experience. That is a profound learning to have, through the time of trial that you are on the right path. If anything, the loss of faculties during that experience of chemotherapy, my intellectual abilities, my power of will, gave me a much deeper appreciation of them. It was not a game changer, but it was profound none the less. While my wonderful, usual activities, wilderness hiking and pilgrimages, the university research and my church activities were resumed, the focus of these activities changed. For instance, I no longer do conventional academic research. It bores the pants off me! I no longer do ‘objective’ research, where I as the author am not represented in the text. That is a huge change. Cancer brought that realisation about. It is what I call ‘total learning’. It is exciting.
Person: You almost sound like you are recommending a good dose of lymphoma.
Mel: I am very happy to disillusion you on that score. Cancer was a miserable experience. A profoundly miserable experience! But, like other trials in life, in retrospect I look back on it and realise that there have been profound changes in emphasis that have come about as a result. Cancer was definitely not the game changer, the wilderness, the university and the church still structure my life, but profound learning did come from the cancer experience.
Another topic that arises, is the future.
Person: So, what does the future hold for you?
Mel: If you mean how long might I expect to be a citizen of this planet, as the writer of Ecclesiastes would say, ’Who knows’. If you mean my activities, my latest research project will be designing a course for the university whereby students will be taken on pilgrimage in the Central Australian Desert, while reflecting on life using a method I designed called ‘Autobiographical Drama’. These students will really earn their academic credit. I like that!