In October 2011, I suffered from what I thought was a flu. I was feverish for a week or so and then it passed. Another flu-like episode a fortnight later and I cursed my bad luck at picking up another virus so quickly. When a third episode occurred at around the same distance from the second, I realised that this might be something other than bouts of flu. A first doctor’s appointment led to a rather rash diagnosis of a chest infection and a prescription of antibiotics. Another recurrence and an appointment with a different doctor raised rather more concern and I was counselled that it might be any number of serious things; given to me amongst the possible causes of the complaint were tuberculosis, lymphoma, malaria and lupus. I underwent blood tests and ex-rays. These were showing no positive results but the fevers were continuing in their fortnightly pattern, with temperatures up to 42° and soaking night sweats. I was spending more time off from my lecturing job than at work. Eventually, my doctor had me admitted to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel for observation, as the new tests they wanted to do would be done quicker as an inpatient. I hadn’t spent a night in hospital since I was 6 months old and had bronchial pneumonia, an event I predictably don’t remember. In the hospital, where the care and facilities couldn’t have been better (I even had my own room, even though I am an NHS patient without any extra cover), I was given a PET scan and a lymph biopsy. When I’d initially had blood tests, the doctor had told me that there was no sign of lymphoma in the bloodstream, which had lulled me into a false sense of security. My hospital consultant was pretty sure I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the biopsy/scan results confirmed this.
I had cancer. To be specific, I had Stage 3B Hodgkin’s, meaning that it had spread above and below my diaphragm and I was experiencing systematic symptoms. I was handed over to a new consultant, Dr Sylvia Montoto at Barts, who told me very clearly that, if left untreated, the disease would kill me. Treatment would involve an ABVD chemotherapy regime. This may have adverse effects – hair loss, nausea, sore gums, etc. – but the prognosis was very positive and I was told that the treatment cures over 80% of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma patients, with over 70%+ of those cured experiencing no recurrence of the disease. Nevertheless, being told you have a potentially fatal cancer is, to say the least, sobering.
Our lives are lived behind glass walls. We know that what lies beyond those glass walls is called Death although most of the times he doesn’t come close enough to the glass that we can see him, so it is easy to forget him or at least tell ourselves he’s some distance away. Sometimes, though, we hear his noises penetrate the glass or getting a feeling of his shadow passing; now and then he even comes close enough to be seen, he can even push his face up against the window. Most of us rather hope that by the time he is so close, we’ll be tired of living in our little glass house, maybe it’s too decrepit and old to be a joy to inhabit, so we’ll happily open the a window wide and let him in. Yet all the time we hear tales of how he’s smashed through to someone as an uninvited guest. I can’t say that I saw his face in 2012 but I certainly felt his presence, out there, closer than ever, perhaps I heard him breath. His breathing’s increase is the decrease of one’s own…
I am not sure that I fear Death, although the pain that one knows he can bring in his wake is a scary prospect. The sorrow he’ll give to those left who loved me is also an awful thought. Most horrible, to me, is the thought that he’ll come before I’ve had time to do all I wish to do with my life. I am a writer, I don’t think I’m written out yet and I certainly haven’t yet seen my creations bedded down in the world for a certain life beyond me, the only children I am likely to have are not yet thriving, so the prospect of death coming to call at this time in my life causes me to sing along with old Dock Boggs, “Oh, death, oh, death, can 't you spare me over till another year?”
Chemotherapy ain’t easy. Its bad reputation is well-earned. What I didn’t reckon on is how stealthy its miseries are. My first couple of sessions were made difficult by one of the drugs, Dacarbazine, giving me a severe bout of rigors - but the effects of the drugs soon wore off, my hair stayed sturdily in place and I was able to get out and about a fair amount in the weeks off from treatment (which was fortnightly, for six months; I was signed off university work for the duration). The more the treatment went on, the more impact it had on my body; energy levels decreased, the hair eventually fell out (leaving me looking like a raggedy scarecrow before I shaved it all off), the gums got sore and a woozy feeling of nausea stuck around. Unluckily for me, the antiemetic drugs weren’t entirely effective and the later treatments were usually concluded with severe bouts of vomiting.
The treatment is given through a drip and the chemo called Dacarbazine particularly took a while to go in, around 2/2.5 hours. I grew to dread this infusion. Sitting in the treatment room, somehow unable to read or listen to music, as this helpful poison slowly entered my body – it’s the worst position I have experience of being in. It was as if in those hours my life and my actual self were suspended. I managed to sleep through some of it (especially as the antihistamine they gave me to prevent the recurrence of the rigors was quite somniferous) but it was a deeply upsetting experience, eroding of all identity and faith in its moment, although these would appear again outside of that dreaded drip-time.
The treatment is given in blood cancer-specific day-wards at the hospital, ghastly and secret rooms in which the ailing sit in armchairs getting themselves infused with what they hope are helpful poisons. Some of the patients are old and weathered by the long-term effects of prolonged treatment; others are young and their eyes tell of the question as to why their glass windows have become menaced by the figure beyond this early in their lives. The wards are for the most part staffed by angels who couldn’t be gentler and kinder, a mercy indeed as without considerate attention, these rooms would be torture chambers.
My own visits to the wards were also alleviated by the companionship of my partner, Andrew, who always accompanied me on treatment days. Our relationship is only a couple of years old but he been the epitome of faithful and true. I wonder if I could have got through 2012 without his love and presence. When I hear the self-proclaimed Holy crew condemning and demeaning same-sex partnerships, I simply feel sorry for people who, supposedly above all others, should be servants of love but yet cannot see love-in-practice when it wears a form they’re prejudiced against. Compassion is a word often improperly used in contemporary life; in Andrew’s devotion, I knew compassion to literally mean co-suffering and I believe him when he says that every time I underwent the soul-destroying treatment, part of him was destroyed alongside me.
In late-October I had the final treatment of the prescribed regime. Over the following weeks my vitality has been returned. I am easing back into my university work and also hard-at-it writing a trilogy of new short plays, a commission from some actors. I had another PET scan in mid-December and, a week before Christmas, got a telephone call from Dr Montoto telling me that the scan shows that there is now no sign of the disease and that I am in “complete remission”. I am seeing a life beyond the cancer now, although it’s been such an intense ordeal that it’s sometimes hard to believe that, for now, the figure living beyond the glass is not imminent.
All of this is not to say that 2012 has been an altogether annus horribilis for me. I have seen devotion in the form of my lover and many of my friends; I saw the premier, six years after I wrote it, of my play Coward by the splendid and extremely talented folk at Just Some Theatre Company, and the seeds laid by their short tour of the play in 2012 are to flourish in an audio release of the play early in 2013 and a longer tour/possible London run of the play later in the year; I have seen some wonderful theatre and opera, although regrettably have not had the energy to write about it other than in short tweets; there was a new Bob Dylan album to wonder at. I have also had time to consider my life and life in general in a way I haven’t perhaps had the leisure to do since I had periods of unemployment in the 1990s; illness does allow one a certain temporary decadent aristocracy during which one can pursue a life of mind and contemplation which daily work undermines. Yet the longing to create is strong in me and I wouldn’t want any longer an intermission of vitality, so I am glad that it looks as if the aristocrat has now been deposed.
It is hard to sum up an experience like this, and I am leaving a great deal out of this perforce short account. I am not going to preach any lessons – perhaps being ill has allowed me to let go of the need to proselytise and for that if nothing else, I am eternally grateful to the circumstance. Perhaps going through a very serious illness gives one a privileged vision of life, or at least allows one to put certain things into perspective; perhaps many do this anyway, without brushing with the Reaper. It certainly allowed me to focus on that which makes me the same as everybody else – knowing myself to be a being whose stay on this earth has limits, that at any moment I might suddenly be thrown from my hobby-horse and encounter that lurker in the land beyond the glass. I could now worry that my cancer will return, or that my body will betray me in some other way, or will be otherwise defeated; yet in my vulnerability I’m not any different from you or anybody else, no matter how apparently healthy a person has always been. We all breath a numbered series of breaths, have terminable heartbeats.
I will take a small liberty and encourage you, if you do not already, to acknowledge Death, as I surely now do. He is for all of us a certain future companion, the caller stealing through the window to be with us in the last dance of our earthly lives. Until then - God, the fates or medical science willing – we’ll have other companions and who knows how many other rounds to dance.