Real-size cat figure in the garden of Huttenstrasse 9, Zurich, where Erwin Schrödinger lived 1921–1926. Depending on the light conditions, the cat appears either alive or dead.
Trapped in a box with a radioactive particle that would inevitably at some point decay, triggering the release of a fatal poison, until the lid was lifted, Shrödinger’s cat was infamously (and ridiculously in Shrödinger’s mind – his thought experiment was designed to critique a branch of quantum physics) both dead and alive. The indeterminate feline was much on my mind earlier this summer, when I spent two weeks wandering the ravishing streets of Prague, in full view and undeniably alive, but psychologically in a state of impossible simultaneity: feeling both gloriously healthy and terminally ill.
In May I had discovered a lump in my left breast. My GP said it was mobile – a good sign – but also large and hard: worrying. An ultrasound revealed the lump was definitely not a cyst, and also discovered swelling in a lymph node. On the verge of a teaching job in Prague, I asked if I should cancel my trip, but was told no, I could get the results when I returned. The doctor at the screening clinic also breezily announced that the worst-case scenario was a lumpectomy, so I left the UK feeling dazed at the prospect of surgery, but relieved that the situation didn’t appear life-threatening. I told colleagues and a handful of friends. In Prague I bought a notebook with an Albert Einstein quote on the cover: Life is like a bicycle: to keep your balance you must keep moving. But I wasn’t expecting the travels that would be demanded of me.
A week into my stay in Prague, the clinic called to strongly advise me to come home early. The armpit biopsy had proved inconclusive and another sample from the lymph node needed to be taken; the nurse also wanted to schedule an appointment with a consultant surgeon. She wasn’t allowed to give results over the phone, but reading between the lines I deduced that the breast lump was malignant. Still, though, the delusional mind is a wondrous thing. Perhaps they were just being extra-careful, I told myself. I arranged for a replacement tutor for my class, and booked a flight to the UK, returning to Prague the following day. If I did have cancer, I reasoned, I wanted to spend as much time as possible in a beautiful city doing what I love before a summer consumed by some horrible treatment. As the week went on I surprised myself with how calmly I was responding to the unfolding situation. My dreams, my friends and the Tarot all said not to worry. But then came Sunday night at the airport, waiting for hours in a long corridor as no news appeared on the departure boards, and ominous text updates from EasyJet culminated in the cancellation of my flight. Prepared to sleep at the airport, I searched desperately online for early morning flights, but none would get me to the clinic on time. With the opening of a hole in the Gatwick Airport main runway, the ground was shifting underneath me, and panic bubbled up.
I made it to the appointment in the end, a day late, to hear the news everyone dreads. I had cancer, it had most probably spread to the lymph nodes, and my liver and lungs would have to be tested as well. And far from simply requiring a routine removal, the tumour in my breast was now too big for a lumpectomy, and unless chemotherapy could shrink it I would need a mastectomy. To top it off, I learned that my lymph nodes would probably be ‘cleared’ – all 30 in the area removed – putting me at risk of lymphodema, a chronic, painful swelling of the limb. My friend Lee who attended the diagnosis with me said I took the news calmly, but in fact I was paralytic in the face of a slow-motion avalanche. My mother died of colon cancer at the age of 52, and ever since I turned 47 two years ago – the age she was diagnosed – I’d been aware that part of me was waiting for this verdict. Although beautifully cushioned by friends, for the 24 hours after receiving the news I was frankly a complete mess. It also didn’t help that I had to get up at four am to catch a bus to Heathrow and a flight to Prague via Frankfurt, an airport itself beset by storms . . .
That was almost two months ago. Emotionally I’ve traveled a great distance since then. As well as the deep support of friends and family, without which I don’t know where I’d be on this journey, writing has been crucial to restoring my equilibrium. Finally, having cleared Frankfurt airport and secure on the plane back to Prague, I picked up my pen and Einstein notebook – and the fear that had gripped my guts since the diagnosis magically lifted. I realised at that moment that terror was not a mandatory response to my illness, and no matter how much time I had left, I didn’t want to spend it seized by the physical pain fear causes. I was of course nervous before the results of my MRI scan two weeks ago, but by then I also knew that whatever the verdict, I would have to keep living in the same way – establishing healthy habits, and maintaining a positive outlook. Very fortunately the scan confirmed that the cancer had not spread to internal organs, and my final diagnosis remains primary breast cancer, Stage 2, which is curable. That sounds good to me.
From the date of the diagnosis I have taken an integrative approach to my treatment, embracing both orthodox medicine and complementary therapies. I have conducted safe juice fasts when appropriate, though now I’ve started chemotherapy I am eating to keep my weight up – a balanced diet of plants, nuts, grains, pulses, and a little animal protein. I am also availing myself of therapies provided by Macmillan and the NHS and local charities: hypnotherapy, counselling, and even a personal trainer, courtesy of Albion in the Community, my local football club. Educating myself about the disease has been important to me, and now after telling as many friends privately as I could, I’ve decided to go public about my condition. For one thing, in this era of sharing, it felt fraudulent to maintain an ‘AOK’ online persona; but also, I’d like my readers to know why I won’t be as active as usual on the arts and politics scene for the next six to nine months.
The chemo is making me very tired, but at the same time I can’t maintain the sedentary lifestyle I had fallen into as a writer – I have to get out walking for a couple of hours a day, and take far more breaks from the screen. Sadly I’ve had to put my Palestinian poetry anthology on hold, and the final book in The Gaia Chronicles will likely be somewhat delayed. While I still read as much as I can about politics I won’t be able to take as vocal a role in debates as I usually do. But I am still as interested in culture, the environment and social justice as ever, with a new focus of my disease: I’ll be incorporating my research about cancer into my world view and my future work. I would also like to avail myself of the big love that’s out there on social media, and as well as occasional blog posts I will be starting a FB page tracking my recovery, checking in and updating people as often as I can.
I have realised already how blessed I am, in particular to have so many people offering me every possible kind of support. I just ask for people’s patience, as everything here is happening a little more slowly than I intend. But although she might be napping in the sun, do not fret – this Brighton cat is well and truly alive, and wearing a pedometer clipped to her tail.