LIFE’S THREE TRUTHS
They all became apparent when the diagnosis was cancer
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.”