Reflections and reactions on life and illness

I have a mother who has always been extremely anxious about pretty much everything. Perhaps this, together with my own very rational character, is what makes me react so slowly to unexpected events in my life, to the point where I worry, at times, that my lack of dramatic, intense responses might be a sign of some emotional deficit, but in the end that’s simply the way I am, and I like myself just fine.

Having smoked for many years (I stopped 7-8 years ago, by which time I was up to two packs of cigarettes a day), cancer was always on my mind. Sometimes, before falling asleep, I’d be frightened at the thought that I might get lung cancer, but when I’d take the tests for breast cancer, for example, I wouldn’t be nervous in the least, as if they were just a routine procedure whose results I didn’t have to worry about.

How did I react to the initial suspicion, and then the confirmation, that I had a tumour of the pancreas? What I’m about to write might seem trite, upbeat in a corny way, maybe even a bit fake, but this is how things played out.

When I had the ultrasound, and the radiologist turned sad, I wanted to make her feel better, to tell her not to worry about me. Ever since, I’ve thought that I should go back and thank her for how nice she was. Sooner or later I will.
After the results of the CAT scan, when there was no more doubt, even if I still didn’t have a clear idea of what awaited me, I thought to myself that, all things considered, there was a certain fairness to the turn things had taken.

Because I’ve met a lot of women suffering from illness who were mad, furious over what’s happened to them. They ask themselves, “Why me?”, but I didn’t. In part, because I knew that I hadn’t done much to avoid the illness. I had smoked a lot, gotten very little physical exercise in recent years, and my diet was not always a healthy one. But I’d been able to live a relatively privileged life for 52 years: my grandparents had died at an advanced age, a father who was over 80 when he passed away, my son was in perfect health. I myself had never had never had any health problems, not even the flu, and economically life was more than comfortable. Plus I was a citizen of a country that offered universal health care, with full coverage for most serious illnesses.

How much of the rest of the world had been so lucky? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t imagine more than 10% of everyone worldwide. So who was I to complain or get mad if, after 52 years, I was now experiencing some difficulties of my own? I thought of women who give birth to a child with major illness and then have to spend the rest of their lives watching them suffer. I would face my fate with a smile, I decided.

It is my mother I’m really sorry for. In fact, the most difficult moment in this whole period was when I had to tell her, looking right in her eyes, the news that hit her as a terrible blow.

I hope I can keep from upsetting my son and disturbing his future to too great an extent. I am really focused on that and counting a lot on my social network of family and friends to help lessen the difficulties.

I also made up my mind not to search the web for information on my illness (whenever something catches my eye, I immediately close it). In fact, I don’t even ask my doctors what the future holds. I’m determined to go step by step, without any plan, which for me is no easy matter, seeing that I’ve always been one for carefully preparing the next trip, the next meeting, but I’ve quickly learned to change my ways.

And this adjustment on my part, this taking things as they come, has shown me how, whenever you mention a tumour, you immediately draw a reaction from others. The sky suddenly turns all cloudy and grey, people start treating you as if you already had one foot in the grave. I quickly saw that this trap had to be avoided if I wanted to enjoy life (rather than spend a few anguished months trying to survive a serious illness while waiting to die).

And so I started telling everyone, calmly and openly, practically joking about it, as if it were something to be taken lightly. I did my best to put people at their ease when they called me. I imagined how they felt, and it occurred to me that I’d never been much of a friend to people suffering from cancer. I never knew quite what to do, because you find yourself worrying, afraid you might be bothering the person, wondering if you’ll call them, only to find out that they’ve died. I didn’t want my friends to feel like I had, to have to nervously ask each other if I was still alive, with things getting to the point where we could only talk about cancer and being ill.

I needed my friends, because I knew that my closest family members – my mother (whose anxiety was heightened by the fact that she has already gone through a similar experience), my sister (who lives abroad), my partner (who has other problems he also has to deal with) and my son (who’s only an adolescent) – would not be able to cope with the full weight of my illness by themselves. So I involved all my friends, those I’d known forever, those from different parts of my life, my closest relatives. Thanks to all of them, I have managed to live these months well, in full, in an extremely interesting, even fun way. In other words, exactly how I should have lived the 52 years that came before.

There are times when I feel frightened, but they don’t last. Mostly, they hit me at home, when I let myself wallow around in feelings of self-pity over being a “poor tumour patient”. After 3-4 hours, I get myself to believing that I’m going to drop off from one moment to the next, at which point I need someone to comfort me. And luckily, I always find them.

I’ve learned that, as Michele Reni says, what scares us most is the uncertainty, the doubt, whereas knowledge and truth (and friends) make you feel better.

And I do have fun taking advantage of the air of compassion you find throughout society. If I’m in some government office, trying to deal with a bureaucratic obstacle, my shaved head and the glance that says, “I have cancer. I might not live that long,” does the trick every time.

Share your thoughts