In one of the little brochures that came with the “My Journey” pack put together by the Breast Cancer Network Australia, there is some terrific advice for “Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer”. Some of this seems very locally specific: I doubt that the restorative powers of Tim Tams are recognised in the US, for example; and I can think of many finer ways of introducing the beneficial anti-oxidant properties of the cocoa bean into the body.
Mostly the advice is very sensible, and makes even more sense to me now than it did when I first read it. It is just over a month since my official diagnosis (and about seven weeks since I first noticed the incriminating dimple in a hotel bathroom in St Louis). Under the “Things that won't help” section, one suggestion rings with me today. “Don't tell her to 'be positive'”.
Now, this is a tricky one, since it's widely acknowledged that having a positive attitude can make a real difference to one's experience of illness and treatment. A friend of my partner's gave us Norman Cousins' Anatomy of an Illness, a classic tale of healing through active collaboration with the physician and positive will power (far more enabling to me than Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, since her discussion of cancer now seems rather dated).
But it seems that telling someone who is afraid and anxious (OK, I've had a couple of bad days) to “be positive” would be about as useful as telling someone who is depressed to “cheer up”. No one has actually said this to me, I should say; just the insistent little voice in my head worrying that I've not been feeling as resilient and positive as I was a few weeks ago.
Yesterday, for example, I didn't go for the daily walk I've prescribed for myself. Well, it was hailing on the West Gate bridge, and snowing in the Dandenongs - the far outer suburbs in the mountains to the east. (This is spring in the new southern hemisphere of climate change.) But I had a day of feeling sorry for myself, and allowing myself to get distracted from my best intentions.
This morning I was tempted to stay in bed and read, but after some wise partnerly counselling about the dangers of cocooning myself, I did head off for my walk. I laughed at myself after 15 minutes, though, realising that I had taken my cocoon with me: two layers of wool under a thick double-lined coat I had bought for a St Louis winter last year; a warm lambswool scarf I had bought in Edinburgh; and knitted gloves.
I came home in warm sunshine carrying most of this stuff in my arms, and was able to sit down to fulfil another of the small imperatives I have given myself: to read for at least an hour-a-day towards an essay I am writing on Piers Plowman.
Along my walk, I was pondering the difficulties of trying to reform and change my life, over the course of my treatment, and in the years to come. I am ready to accept the conventional wisdom and the experience of patients and doctors that cancer can often be a sign to us to re-assess our priorities. So far, I haven't found that I want to throw it all in and take up mushroom-farming: I find merely that I want to re-direct my energies and find a way to streamline the chaos of books, papers, committees, teaching, grants, meetings, emails, letters, forms and databases, to allow more time for the things I love best: reading and writing, for work and pleasure; and music, for pleasure.
I could try and manage it all better (I spent far too long the other day looking for a memory stick with a reference on it which I had hidden away somewhere; and ended up writing the reference again from scratch), but I think an even harder challenge will be to become one of those people who says things like “no, I'm sorry, I won't be able to do that”. I've done it a few times already over the last few weeks, and of course I survived. I will have to think of these as rehearsals for when I am no longer sick, when I will really need to be stronger about this.
In the meantime, here's a resonant little quotation. The essay I read this morning was Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's Langland and the Bibliographic Ego, in which she suggests that Langland revised the C version of the poem from an imperfect version of B not because it was the only one he had available, but because it was the version that was already abroad, already in circulation, and the one that most needed correcting and updating. She quotes Pearsall: “The C-reviser seems to have worked piecemeal, outward from certain cores of dissatisfaction, rather than systematically through B from beginning to end.”
Working outward from certain cores of dissatisfaction? This seems to me a helpful way of thinking about gradually making some changes. No lightning bolts; no revelations; just the slow work of reformation through reading and writing around certain central cores and clusters of ideas.