LIFE’S THREE TRUTHS

They all be­came ap­par­ent when the di­ag­no­sis was cancer

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - JU­LIA BAIRD FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES

Age-old cer­ti­tudes can give you strength.

I OF­TEN WON­DERED what it would be like to have cancer. To dis­cover you’re car­ry­ing some­thing that is eat­ing you away, grow­ing an ugly mass in or around your bones or or­gans. To be blithely step­ping through life, un­aware that your in­sides are be­tray­ing you.

I didn’t ex­pect to find out, though, at least not for decades. I have al­ways been healthy and strong; I reg­u­larly do hot yoga and swim two kilo­me­tres in a bay near my home in Syd­ney, all while car­ing for my two lit­tle kids, host­ing a cur­rent af­fairs TV show and writing.

But now I know: it felt as if I was car­ry­ing a baby. Tu­mours that silently grew inside me sud­denly bal­looned one week­end, push­ing my belly into an arc.

It was so odd; in the months be­fore­hand I had felt bloated, and my clothes had grown snug. I was ex­hausted but my doc­tor put it down to my work­load.

Then, one Satur­day in June, I was struck with ag­o­nis­ing pain and ended up in the hospi­tal.

When I walked it felt eerily sim­i­lar to be­ing preg­nant – or­gans cramped, squashed against one an­other. When I wasn’t con­cen­trat­ing, I was sure I’d feel a kick and my hands would creep to my belly. Then I would re­mem­ber.

It was not a baby. It was a bas­ket­ball-sized mass be­tween my belly but­ton and my spine. Soon I was al­most wad­dling with it. A dark, mur­der­ous in­fant. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be op­er­ated on or ex­or­cised.

The sus­pected di­ag­no­sis was bad: ad­vanced ovar­ian cancer. “I have to be frank with you, Ju­lia,” my sur­geon said when I asked if it might be be­nign. “All the signs are that this is very se­ri­ous.” I spent two weeks wait­ing for surgery, not know­ing if I’d live to the end of the year.

Your world nar­rows to a slit when fac­ing a di­ag­no­sis like that; sud­denly very lit­tle mat­ters. I told my fam­ily and some close friends, then went into lock­down.

In the early hours I woke gripped with ter­ror and con­tem­plated death be­fore I rose to get my son and daugh­ter ready for school. I was but­ter­ing sand­wiches when my sur­geon called to tell me it may have spread to my liver. I bit my lip, sliced the sand­wiches, and held my chil­dren’s hands tightly as we walked to school.

In the days be­fore the op­er­a­tion, I turned off my phone and com­puter. I prayed so hard I grew un­nat­u­rally calm. I felt like a flower shut­ting in on it­self, brac­ing, pre­par­ing for the night.

It’s a pe­cu­liar, lonely kind of im­po­tence, a cancer di­ag­no­sis. If you ran a thou­sand kilo­me­tres or aced a bil­lion ex­ams, noth­ing could re­verse or erase it. There was only surgery.

The op­er­a­tion lasted five hours. The mass was fully re­moved, but it was un­ex­pect­edly com­pli­cated. I was in in­ten­sive care for eight days, in a tan­gle of wires, beep­ing ma­chines, with drains in my lungs and liver. I was so drugged I hal­lu­ci­nated – a reg­gae mu­si­cian sat mute on my bed, my older brother had three heads, and it rained pe­ri­od­i­cally around my bed.

I grew in­tensely at­tached to the nurses, grate­ful for their kind­ness, and lay won­der­ing if there was a more im­por­tant job. I also grew at­tached to my sur­geons, who were pleased to dis­cover that the tu­mours – one on each ovary – were not ma­lig­nant; I didn’t have ovar­ian cancer, but I did have an­other, rare form of cancer, which can re­cur but is non-ag­gres­sive and has a much higher sur­vival rate.

I am slowly grow­ing stronger. I am walk­ing up­right again and wak­ing

I felt like a flower shut­ting in on it­self, brac­ing, pre­par­ing for the night

with­out scald­ing pain. I can now drive, and am pre­par­ing to re­turn to work. My prog­no­sis is good, but I will need to live with the fear of re­turn.

This week, my blood tests came back clear of cancer. But my scar runs the length of my torso; I feel per­ma­nently al­tered.

When I came out of the hospi­tal, ev­ery­one sud­denly seemed con­sumed with fool­ish wor­ries. I frowned at the com­plaints posted on so­cial me­dia – peo­ple who had the flu, were an­noyed by politi­cians or bur­dened by work – and wanted to scream: BUT YOU ARE ALIVE!!!! Alive! Each day is a glory, es­pe­cially if up­right and able to move with ease, with­out pain.

I’m still grap­pling with what all of this means. But in this short time, three age-old truths be­came even more ap­par­ent to me.

First, still­ness and faith can give you ex­tra­or­di­nary strength. Com­mo­tion drains. The ‘brave’ warrior talk that of­ten sur­rounds cancer rang false to me. I didn’t want war, tu­mult or battle. In­stead, I just prayed to God. And I think what I found is much like what Greek philoso­phers called ataraxia, a sus­pended calm in which you find sur­pris­ing strength.

Sec­ond, you may find your­self try­ing to com­fort pan­icked peo­ple around you. But those who rally and come to mop your brow when you look like a ghost, try to make you laugh, dis­tract you with silly sto­ries, cook for you – or even fly for 20 hours just to hug you – are com­pan­ions of the high­est order. Your fam­ily is ev­ery­thing.

Third, we should not have to re­treat to the woods like Henry David Thoreau to “live de­lib­er­ately”. It would be im­pos­si­ble and frankly ex­haust­ing to live each day as if it were your last. But there’s some­thing about writing a will that has small chil­dren as ben­e­fi­cia­ries that makes the world stop.

My doc­tor asked me a few days ago how I be­came so calm be­fore the surgery. I told her: I prayed, I locked out neg­a­tiv­ity and drama and drew my fam­ily and tribe – big-hearted, prag­matic peo­ple – near. I tried to live de­lib­er­ately.

“Can I just say,” she said, “that you should do that for the rest of your life.”

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