The Sleeping Assumption

The thing that whacked me in the face was the Radiation Oncologist’s statement:

“We’re here to talk about treatment options for YOUR cancer…” (capitals mine, because that’s how it sounded in my head).

Through the whole process of tests that had brought me to this point, perhaps the one thing that I had been keeping at arm’s length was ownership of this condition/disease/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is that it is my cancer and me owning it has made it much more manageable and, if not pleasant, tolerable.

In my prior visit to the urologist, he told me that although the cancer was contained and not elsewhere in my body, I was in for some interesting times ahead. I also began to realise that none of these medical professionals were offering guarantees or even calculated guesses at what my revised longevity may be. That was a little sobering. So what was it? Five years? Ten years? Could I hope for fifteen?

As I sat in the car afterwards with a dear friend, feeling a little shell-shocked, I considered this lack of guarantee, and had something of an epiphany:

None of us has any guarantees.

We live in a world that reminds us constantly that our lives and our futures are the stuff of choice, ambition and dreams, when reality is far from this. Sure, we live longer than ever before thanks to hygiene, medicine and diet but we are still subject to the unexpected, unexplained or incurable.

Strangely enough, I found that understanding quite comforting. The only difference for me is that I have something inside me now that has been identified as a potential killer. So, there is a little less “unknown” for me.

In any case, the doctor was confident and thorough and, after lists of all the statistics, side effects and costs, left me with hope that this thing is completely treatable and beatable without radical surgery. There will be potential ongoing consequences, but that’s OK; at least I’ll be alive, hopefully for many years to come.


But I’ve been thinking about this problem of guarantees.

I spend most of my days in the world of the mass media – particularly promotions and advertising, which has at its core the premise that, if you can make people feel something, they will buy it, or watch it, or identify with it. It’s almost never about information, but about how that product is going to make you feel; it might make you feel more important, manlier, more feminine, have more value or more sex appeal. It is a subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) form of manipulation in which all of us are well practised, since the time we first cried to elicit sympathy in order to get what we wanted.

One of the things that the media has taught us quite well is that we are the most important person in the world. In fact, an insurance company had a campaign not so long ago with that as a tag line: “The most important person in the world: You”

With so much around geared to telling us how important we are and how in control we are, we could be forgiven for thinking that happy, trouble-free immortality is just one purchase away. Of course, we are only in control if we have made the correct purchases; if we haven’t then we are doomed to be inadequate fringe-dwellers until we do.

As a yardstick, I often consider what someone from a different, simpler culture would make of these social straightjackets that we insist on wearing. For example, what would the rice paddy worker from Cambodia make of my desperate need to have the right brand of jeans, toothpaste or hair gel? (For those of us who are fortunate enough to have hair).

In our free-market, capitalistic world it seems that we have allowed options to muscle out contentment and gratitude to the point where, in our abundance, what we don’t have is always more important than what we do. It’s how this system, which is really perpetuated by our feelings of inadequacy and not ever having enough, fuels itself.

Cobbled in with all of this are my choices, ambitions and dreams. Like most of us, they relate generally to family, love, and friendships; but of course, there is a critical element in all of those things in order for choices, etc., to become functional; that element is time.

With a cancer diagnosis, suddenly time becomes the most important factor. Everything in our lives that we plan or dream about is framed around the sleeping assumption that we will have time for it. When an external factor – like cancer – overrides our choices with regard to how much time we may or may not have, all of those choices, ambitions and dreams become very focussed and rapidly prioritised. All of that is to say, the journey of what does and doesn’t matter becomes a little easier.

To learn to live with an understanding that there are no guarantees for how long any of us has on this planet is actually very freeing: a refocussing on how to live and love well and how to leave behind the things that encumber.

That’s a nice little media-style catch-phrase to finish with: LIVE, LOVE, LEAVE BEHIND. “Matt’s Three L’s for the next stage of life.”

Just to fill you in, I hope to begin a combination of internal and external radiotherapy in a few weeks; that will last for six weeks. After that, I hope to be cancer-free. I’ll keep you posted.


The Familiar Abyss

“What are you scared about the most?”

It was a question that cut to my core. Innocuous, it would seem, as something that we all ask of those that we know; but given the right context and timing, it cut to my core.

“So, what are you scared about the most?”

It’s a pretty normal question, a conversation starter, or a “getting–to-know-you” group question, but this time, because it was asked the evening after I had received the diagnosis of the presence of a moderately active cancer in my prostate, it was particularly pertinent. That I received this news two days after we commemorated the first anniversary of Ngaire’s passing wasn’t lost on me either.

After the initial blow subsided, the clouds cleared and I, again stood looking into this seemingly bottomless abyss of the unknown and unfriendly. It seemed strangely familiar and not quite as fearful as I remembered it. In fact, as I talked to a friend about it later in the day, it dawned on me that there was actually treasure to be found here. However, I will have to climb down into this hole; at some point, I will have to leap across the gap, and I will get to the other side.

There is a pretty good success rate with this type of cancer. For the sake of those who love me, I’ll do all I can to make sure that I’m in the positive percentage. Nonetheless, it is quite sobering knowing that I have “the worm” inside me: that which could end my life is resident within.

The reality that we tend to ignore rather well in our society, is that we are all terminal and, as C.S. Lewis said, “Death has a way of focussing one’s attention.”

So, what am I scared about most? Oddly enough, it’s not that I might die, or the numerous unpleasant procedures involved; it’s my mental health.

Since a couple of years before Ngaire died, I found myself gradually sliding from being my normally robust, buoyant self into being frequently depressed, anxious and fearful, particularly through the long hours of the night. To even contemplate the possibility of entering that darkness again, having been free of it for many months now, is more frightening than anything else.

As always, there is tremendous strength drawn from the love of my friends and my boys; I am grateful beyond words.

Well over a year ago, I committed to document Ngaire’s journey towards a lung transplant; within a few months she was gone, having never made it that far. The documented journey became the path of grief and so many aspects of relationship and love lost, all the way through into the open space.

So now it’s time to head off into the woods again – pop on the boots, tighten the belt and strike up the hiking song……whatever. I may not be the Happy Wanderer, but I hope to walk this path with a great degree of peace. Thank you to those who are walking with me.

Stay tuned for updates.