The day I faced surgery for breast cancer dawned bright and clear.
“Isn't it funny?” I remarked to Rob, as we walked briskly up the paved pathway to the hospital entrance. “'m not at all afraid. In fact, I feel cheerful. Yet next time I walk through these doors my life will have changed, and I’ll be in pain.”
“I know what you mean. It has an unreal quality to it.”
I knew that many patients who face the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease go through a phase of denial. Were we in denial? No, not the way I understood the term.
I knew that many were praying, “Please don’t let it be cancer”. Somehow that never occurred to us as a family. We knew that this was "the real thing ". Yet somehow by this stage I seemed to look on the ordeal ahead as a nuisance operation. Maybe this was where the denial crept in. At times I had to fight down waves of fear; questions like, “Will I see this again?” “Is this really happening?” haunted my thoughts. But most of the time I experienced a calm, if numb, confidence. Sure, there would be some pain for a day or two, but then I’d be fine.
Before leaving home we had spent a few minutes in prayer together with David, before he left to write the last of his final examinations at the Wits Technichon, or University/College.
“I'm not going to write” he said stoutly when he first heard the date of my operation. “My place is at the hospital with Dad."
Although touched that he felt this way, I prepared for an argument. However Stephen, his older brother, had however already arranged to take time off work.
“David, I want you to forget that you even have a mother for the morning,” I said firmly. “There will be plenty of time to come alongside us in the days ahead.”
I was ensured a never-ending supply of visiting colleagues by the fact that the laboratory where I worked actually serviced this particular hospital. It was also good to know that I would be in the busy surgical ward where my good friend and nursing colleague, Hilda, was Charge Sister.
When I arrived in the ward, the night staff showed me to a bed in the corner of a six-bedded room. I could see nothing but four walls, the other beds, and the toilet door. It felt claustrophobic. Instinctively I knew that I had to "see life"; to be as optimistic and positive as possible.
I also sensed a growing need to be "in charge" of my own body and treatment wherever possible. I wanted to understand what people were doing to my body, and why. Without knowing this was a good sign (see below) I wanted to take charge of where I would lie for the next week. I decided to speak to Hilda about my bed when she came on duty. I didn't need to ask.
As soon as she came on duty she moved me to another bed, still with the inevitable white bedspreads and neat envelope corners, but on my right the pretty dusky-pink curtains framed a view across the town of Krugersdorp. Looking left, I could see quite far down the corridor, able to watch the comings and goings of the busy surgical ward. It was as cheerful a room as a hospital ward ever is. The Lord and Hilda understood my need to 'see life' and not just illness.
I unpacked my night clothes and wash-bag into the locker, and filled the drawer with things to keep me busy, while chatting cheerfully to my new neighbours.
Although "first on the slate", which would mean I'd be first in surgery, they wouldn’t fetch me for theatre for a while yet. I had plenty of time. Or so I thought . . .
Some weeks later I was encouraged when I read Love, Medicine and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D. He talks about the "exceptional patient", or the "survivor". He states, Exceptional patients manifest the will to live in its more potent form. They take charge of their lives even if they were never able to before, and they work hard to achieve health and peace of mind. They do not rely on doctors to take the initiative but rather use them as members of a team, demanding the utmost in technique, resourcefulness, concern, and open-mindedness.1
Don't be afraid of asking too many questions. You don't have to accept everything without understanding. Your medical team is there to guide and advise you on the best treatment for your body. They're there to give your body the treatment it needs. But the emphasis is your body. Ask them: Why? For how long? What can I expect? Once you have your answers, go ahead and do the best you can to work together with them for the benefit of your body.
1Love, Medicine and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel M.D. ©1986