Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Waiting for...

Tomorrow it will be 6 weeks since some surgery to remove early breast cancer. All is well, I have heard from the surgeon that there is no microinvasion. Healing is progressing as it should.

Three weeks ago, my surgeon dictated a letter to another hospital, requesting a referral for radiotherapy. I was in the room when he dictated it.

Apparently NHS letters have been outsourced to somewhere in India to be typed up. I don't know what happens to them after that -- who actually prints them out, sticks them in an envelope, franks them, takes them to a post box.

All I know, and you can probably guess what's coming -- or rather not coming -- next, is that that letter never made it to the other hospital.

Day followed day, and I tried to hurry up and wait. I busied myself, knowing that there would inevitably be a delay while appointments were made, telling myself that a few days, a week, a fortnight, wouldn't matter, that I needed to trust and accept. All that mindful stuff.

Eventually I could stand it no longer, and just called the hospital myself. This is when anyone first knew that no letter had materialised. Almost immediately, via phone, text and email, an appointment was made. For a further ten days off. Nothing to be done, no clinics before this.

Radiotherapy, apparently, is set up via a consultation meeting, then a planning meeting, and finally the actual therapy. I can't speed these meetings up, or skip one, because different departments have to be aligned. I have no way of knowing what the gaps will be between the meetings, and when the therapy will finally begin.

At the end of July, we are booked to fly to Australia, to see my husband's parents. This has been booked since April, and is not changeable. It's four years since we have been able to take our children to see their grandparents. It's not just a summer holiday, it's crucial.

I know, already, that the radiotherapy I need to have is an insurance. My breast will be tattooed and will shrink and be burnt, and it's not necessary. I'm doing it because I've been advised to -- and I've been advised to, not because it's actually going to prevent cancer returning there or anywhere else, but because it reassures my surgeon that he has done everything he has at his disposal to do. And I am afraid not to go ahead... just in case. Even though I know rationally it will make virtually no difference, now or in the future.

I know that I am powerless to prevent either of two scenarios happening: either the therapy will take place right up to the wire of departure, in which case I'm likely to be exhausted and wrecked travelling round the world. Or it will be postponed until the Autumn, pushing back the reconstruction surgery, and meaning that essentially the whole of 2016 will be taken up with treatment for early breast cancer.

I feel perfectly well, apart from the fact that my mind, will, sense of humour, capacity to plan and act are gradually turning to stone, as a direct result of this situation. I feel dissolved, absent from myself, immobilised.

Having dealt with the cancer itself as if I were preparing for my A levels: reading the set texts, doing practice papers, remembering to answer the question, staying focused and holding my nerve, I am finding this sagging limbo far, far harder to deal with. Like the so-called War on Terror, the big problem is that the enemy isn't tangible or visible. Looking back, my sense of triumph at vanquishing the cancer owed a lot to sports psychology. I WON (never mind that cancer got a bit of breast). Dealing with waiting is like dealing with a cloud. What do you PUT it in?

Dr Seuss puts his sweet, avuncular finger on what is so grim about being forced to wait in Oh! The Places You'll Go!: in this classic graduation gift, he addresses the reader, pointing out the joys and perils of a life well lived. One of the darkest places is The Waiting Place:

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil,
or a Better Break
or a string of pearls,
or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls,
or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Typically, Dr Seuss manages to make The Waiting Place bearable by making it sound funny and silly. But everything is in the repetition of 'Everyone is just waiting'. Despite all the rich variety of ways to wait, they boil down to the same experience -- not being able to move forward, and being dependent on indifferent others for one's security, happiness, deliverance.

'Just waiting' is something every one of us experiences at some point in our lives. It is an experience of powerlessness, since we would not be waiting, were we able to do something to shorten the wait. Waiting implies waiting for someone or something which refuses to hurry up, refuses to grant you what you want. Waiting is passive -- I have found myself reliving experiences of waiting which go right back to my childhood -- waiting for results, for a viva, for a birth, for conveyancing, for books to be published, to get over a broken heart, to recover from grief, to grow up. Waiting is associated almost exclusively with negativity and suffering (illness, judgement, trauma), while its more optimistic cousin, Anticipation, is bound up with hope and desire (love, birthdays, holidays).

Both waiting and anticipation make time stand still, but for vastly different reasons.

Samuel Beckett mines waiting for its black comedy in Godot -- 'Nothing to be done' is done over an immensely long time by Vladimir and Estragon.

King Lear blasts 'Nothing will come of nothing' at his daughter Cordelia, who will not give him the flattery he wants, and thus lays bare his egotism and narcissism. She makes him wait for the rest of both their lives, until he finally understands that her nothing meant everything.

Waiting is infantilising, recalling a time when we were helplessly dependent, waiting for someone to rescue us, our only power our ability to cry.

Now that I am a mother, I can understand another dimension of waiting: so much of mothering or parenting is about waiting for your child to grow up -- hoping it will turn out well, trying to savour the here and now, knowing that the best you can hope for is that they successfully abandon you, waiting for them to learn the lessons you know they must learn before they go into the world without you.

Perhaps the reason why I'm so upset about that lost letter is that, cancer or no cancer, my whole existence has already been reduced to waiting.

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