Living with Cancer

When you`re leaving home for a holiday, and especially when your health is compromised through cancer or its treatments, life becomes more of a juggling act and the ”getting ready to go”, can often be a daunting challenge, the packing of clothes, towels, toiletries, medicines, kitchen oddments if you are going self- catering as we mainly do, the leaving the house tidy, the bathroom and kitchen clean, and multiple other aspects such as paying outstanding bills, telling the neighbours, all before you are ready to go, is a mountainous achievement and can leave you worn out before you depart.
In all partnerships between husband and wife, just as in domestic partnerships of any kind, there is what I think of as assumed dedicated roles, for instance who does the cooking, washing, ironing, bed-making, hoovering and dusting and so on and who does the paperwork and bill paying and gardening. During my first marriage, I somehow covered all these roles, and so living as a single parent on divorce was something of which I found not too daunting a challenge. Single people though on the whole and certainly ones dealing with serious illness do have a far harder time of it though, it must be said.
When one half of the partnership becomes long term ill, or disabled for any amount of time, then the lines have to be redrawn. I still do as much as I possibly can do, but it is nowhere as much as before. To reiterate, I have lived with a stage four bowel cancer diagnosis for almost nine years, so I have seen many changes in my and my husband`s life.
I can`t use a heavy vacuum any longer, and standing for long periods is another thing I cannot do. The things I can do, take far more time, I do not have the strength and physicality and nimbleness of body and sometimes mind, which came easily before to me before I became ill. I am almost ten years older now too, and so it all takes its toll.
I`ve had to relearn “life” again and what means normal for me. I have experienced a lot of frustration with myself, and sadness at the loss of control of my abilities, strength and independence.
I have always been a very independent individual, but I have had to learn to be far more reliant on others now. I have had to accept my situation and cultivate patience with grace, and give thankfulness that things are far worse for a lot more people, than I have it.
Experiencing hardship of any kind can develop within us, empathy and compassion to a new level and understanding of others` hard circumstances.
Developing and living with cancer is a giant upheaval and is life changing. It affects all of our relationships, sometimes not for the better, some relationships become closer and stronger, some become fractious, some people, we never see again! Cancer is a very real leveller in everyone`s life. What we learn is that not everyone copes with its existence in a way we would have believed or hoped for. I strive to be non-judgmental of people and situations like these, as I think that fear and fear of the unknown, and the fear of serious illness drives a lot of people away, or find it increasingly more difficult to spend time with you, or feel unable to discuss your situation.
Some of us with terminal diagnosis, live in this strange marginal “hinterland” of not being cured, and our futures are being managed by a series of reappraisals, chemotherapy treatments, and surgeries which enable us to continue and for which, we are magnanimously thankful for, each day of our lives.
So I have learnt that life takes more planning now but I have less self-expectation now, and am necessarily less concerned about the things in life that don`t really matter and the expectation in others, is lower now and that the idealism that I have aspired to before always, has had to be tempered and changed. This is the way I have dealt with severe long term illness.
Acceptance of inevitable, radical change in life, is the best way forward. A kind of functioning domesticity is still vital but now takes a less rigorous, different form.
I have always thought a lot about how my illness affects close family members and the people I deal with on a regular basis, and I try wherever possible to not overburden them. I have said before that the effects of developing this hideous disease can lead to a kind of guilt complex, but then I think, if it were my partner in role reversal, I would not want them to feel like that, but all the same, it is hard to watch your family go through the mill, worrying about you. You want to protect everyone, but it is impossible to do so.
We decided that we must try to get away from home more than as in the past eight months, as we have been particularly housebound as I have said before recently, because of treatments, severe lethargy and bowel problems and now new symptoms, and also waiting for hospital appointments.
When I am away from home, I feel relieved of most of the domestic and other pressures I feel on a normal daily basis. Someone else`s dust and the lack of post which may need responses, are out of my radar, when I am on holiday.
We went again to the southwest peninsula of Cornwall.
This locality has the kind of aspects that we really enjoy when taking time out.
Beautiful natural coastal scenery, huge open skies and wild, rocky moorlands, gentle green valleys and the fascinating heritage of the industrial landscape in tin mines and engine houses.
Ancient churches and beautiful houses and gardens open to the public. Space, peace, privacy if you need it, and time to enjoy each other`s company, without the humdrum issues of domesticity in everyday life taking precedence. This is very important to me, as I feel my illness is progressing now, more rapidly, so I must take each opportunity I have, to get the best out of life, to use my time well, and whilst I am able to travel a little and enjoy the outside world.
We have to make time to experience the lovely natural gifts we have around us, whilst we are able. I have friends who sometimes say, well-meaningly of course, “Wait till you feel better or stronger before you take that trip”, but it is important to know your own body and to listen to what your instincts are telling you to do. I follow those feelings more than ever now, I let them be my guide.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon at the cottage we had rented, and our daughter, son in law and grandchildren came along too, later that evening to stay for the weekend. They work full time and are at school and college, so we don`t have much time to spend together. We have to make time every now and then to spend time together. That is the reason we weren`t able to attend the Probus Gathering, of which we always go to for the day and enjoy so much.
Unfortunately Saturday was forecast as a washout weather- wise, so we decided to go to Penzance for the day.
On the way there we stopped off at Gunwalloe and Church Cove to have a look at the sea. It was not raining then, so it was a chance to revisit. There is always a brown and white sheepdog lying outside the farm or ice cream hut almost every time we visit. He was there again resting near the ice cream parlour.
We took the sandy path down to Church Cove and noticed people dressed up in their finest, were making their way to the church for a wedding. Some men were in kilts and some wore naval uniforms. The women must have felt the cold though as their clothes were for a celebration and not outdoor garments at all. It was a blustery day, though not raining yet. We never did see the bride arrive, though the whole scene brought to mind the popular Jack Vettriano print of a couple dancing on the beach in evening clothes, with a bowler hatted butler sheltering them with an umbrella. It is a romantic idea, a wedding at a church near a beach, in a cove.
There are a good variety of shops in Penzance`s granite paved streets. So we hopped in and out sheltering from the rain and murk. Just to mingle with the other shoppers on a day which was not good for the beach, was satisfying enough, just to see something different.
We enjoyed fish and chips from the shop on the Lizard, for tea; it was only around the corner from the house we were staying in.
Early on Sunday morning we took the walk down to the Old Lizard Lifeboat Station. The day was fair, the sky a peerless blue and we soon forgot about the rain of the previous day.
We have walked a lot with our family in the past and it offers the opportunity to share our love of the countryside and nature. We chat, we rest, we laugh, we stare, and we break into groups and merge and mix.
The stroll was pleasant and uplifting, with many other people taking in the majestic views around Lizard Point.
We drove to Coverack and had Sunday lunch at the Paris Hotel. It was good, with beef, pork and ham and lots of fresh vegetables. The younger ones left us then, for the drive home, to prepare for work and school on the next day.
On Monday it was another fair weather day, so we decided to head west firstly to Madron`s Well, an ancient site near to Penzance. We came across this site of religious interest many years ago, and we visit it during every holiday if we can.
It is signposted on the main road and the lane then forks, one to a farm house and the other to the site of Madron`s Well. The carpark is small, bumpy and pot-holey and surrounded by farm land, with hardly a house in sight, but whenever we have been there the evidence is that it is well visited. The walk to the chapel or baptistery, is a fair one, but flat, which, once you have passed through the ancient woodland that leads to it, puts you in a peaceful frame of mind, to take in part of the natural spring, which has been diverted many years previously, into the chapel for the purpose of baptism. The original spring has come over the centuries, to be known as a place of healing and is positioned in a different place, though in the same area, reached through swampy ground, so you would need wellies to reach it.
This time the chapel had a group of foreign tourists visiting. The chapel is very small, with no roof and a simple stone altar, which tends to be strewn with wild flowers, placed by visitors. Around the inside of the chapel wall there lies a stone seating area down both sides, which on this morning was full to capacity. The strange thing being that, although there were many people there, there was not a sound to be heard as we approached, they all appeared to be in deep silent meditation, so we felt we would respect their rites of ceremony, and came back to the tree which overlooks a marshy part of the spring, further down the pathway. Here people leave their prayers and hopes for the future, by tying notes or materials to the tree`s branches. This site has been said from ancient times to be a place of healing and whatever is true, there is a very special and resonant atmosphere of peace, oneness and healing all around.
Afterwards we travelled on to Cape Cornwall, just beyond St Just with views across to The Brisons and to the Longships, both rocky reefs and islets. We park in the National Trust car park overlooking Priest`s Cove, and take the walk down past the well maintained sturdy houses in the shelter of the Cape. We always wonder who owns these lovely places and the mansion-style house which stands in huge grounds, with tall stone-mullioned windows, as you look inland, so well preserved and renovated.
Watching the endless motion of the blue and foaming waves is hypnotic.
Sparrows flutter in the dusty pathways and a couple of ringed homing pigeons rest on the stone walls along the way. We examine the rough, tough grassy bye ways for those miniature, perfect wild flower specimens which seem to thrive in the most exacting of climates, in clumps of yellow, blue and pink. The pink sea thrift has gone over in most places, leaving the straw-like heads of their former glory, shaking in the breeze. We see a few blue field scabious and the yellow and rust of the tiny “egg and bacon” plants and tiny stone crops and succulents which grow so well by the coast.
We gaze up at the tower above, on the top of the Cape, which was built as a chimney to the mine at Cape Cornwall originally. We have walked to the top many times before and then down to the small ruin of St Helen`s Oratory an early Christian chapel, in the grassy field below. The first time we visited, we found a large viper lying in the sun within the Oratory walls. It had been a very hot day and we saw small, younger vipers rolling down the cliff side to get out of the way of human feet. This large specimen slithered out of sight in the blink of an eye.
Nearby, is Botallack, with its industrial ruins beautifully outlined by the backdrop of the sea and sky-line? It is hard to imagine the intensity and severe physical work practices which once took prominence in this wild and beautiful but treacherous landscape.
We carried on to the Pendeen Lighthouse, a pure white dazzling monument, spectacularly standing out against the cloudless blue sky. We sit on one of the benches looking out to sea. A German family are nearby exploring the cliff side and verges of green, then we are left in peace, absorbing the rhythm of nature, and listening to the “silence” of the day, chatting quietly and watching the sea spray vaporising over the beach and cliffs.
The last place we visited on that day was Zennor. We took the easy, sheltered path down to the clifftops, watching a well -rehearsed herd of brown dairy cows wending their way slowly from the fields to the farm sheds, for milking.
On our return, we navigated the steep church steps, and passed quietly into the interior, bypassing a long net across the porch entrance placed there to deter the swallows. We went quietly into Zennor Church. We have to acclimatise ourselves to the dark stillness of the church interior. We sit quietly in prayer and contemplation. No one else is there. We look again at the Mermaid`s Seat and the many hand worked colourful kneelers. The church bell ringing ropes lie in simple uniformity, resting. We notice there are men on the church roof carrying out repairs, and on exiting the church, a gardener crops at the path-side weeds with his hoe, seemingly happy in his work.
On the next day, we spent some hours at Helford village, picnicking in the car park on the hill, very basic cheese and pickle sandwiches and coffee from the flask, but sometimes the simpler the food, the better the taste. Then being joined by a black and white, cross-collie mongrel who appeared to be accompanying all visitors to the Creekside village from the carpark. Trotting along with his smart red collar on, running ahead and looking over his shoulder to see if we were still following, then once we were safely in the village, he returned back to the car park to “guide” others. We saw him with several groups of people and couples and it seems he had made it his personal mission.
We took the path to the ferry and stayed there for a while watching the boats, and the green undulating landscape across the waters of the Helford Passage, with Port Navas to the left and Durgan to the right.
On returning alongside the creek, a group of men had gathered to assist a man with a transit van in trouble. He had attempted a three point turn and was now left with a back wheel hanging over the sea wall. The helpers were trying to toe him out of trouble with a rope and a car, along with manpower, but were having no luck. We stayed for ages watching, indeed there was an audience by the time we left.
On the next day, Wednesday, we had arranged to meet Jim Cofer, a member of our bowel cancer support group, who very recently lost his wife, the lovely Linda. We met at the large car boot sale at Rosudgeon, on the Helston to Penzance road.
It was another bright and beautiful day and we met up easily with Jim at the field`s entrance. Jim had bought along with him, for the day out, his family pet George, a lovable lump of mischievous, chocolate Labrador, with a fascination for new places and new smells. Phil took charge of George to give Jim a rest.
So many dogs hailed George as a possible new best friend, that it took us a while to cover the field. It did not matter though as were enjoying the serene weather, the company and the interesting stalls.
People were enjoying a selection of burgers and cheesy chips and all manner of sizzling food.
The atmosphere was sociable, and friendly. There was a wondrous array of perennial garden plants markedly deep blue delphiniums and pink lupins, home- made preserves, all smartly capped with bright red, chequered cottons, pickled onions and chutneys, home grown vegetables, all along with the usual goods such as clothes, toys, furniture and bric-a-brac, books and coins.
We finally left and headed for a pub, the Queens Arms, at Breage which we knew. It was very quiet there so we asked if it was alright to bring George inside as in was so hot in the car. It was alright so George lay on the cool floor of the bar, tucked away in a corner, whilst we ate lunch, fresh hake, ham, egg and chips and steak and ale pie, which was all very good.
Jim said that George the lab, had achieved two firsts on that day, visiting a car boot and going inside a pub!
On saying goodbye to Jim we passed to him a rose bush bought specifically for him in memory of his lovely wife, Linda, whom most knew in our group and who was admired and loved by many. The rose bush was bought by personal donation, by all of Linda`s contemporaries on the committee. Linda was our committee secretary and achieved a lot for the group during her illness.
The rose we picked was named “Cadfael”. We chose it because it was a sturdy plant and the description went:
Cadfael, a pink, peony style, old English rose with abundant flowering properties and a fine scent. Cadfael was a fictional Benedictine monk, healer and a nurturer with an innate sense of justice and fair play and this was what Linda was, to many people throughout her life.
On the last day of our holiday, we decided to walk from the car park at Kynance Bay, down to the coffee shop on the cliffs. There are two ways down and we took the slow, long way as it was the easiest to navigate. I cannot walk very well or far any longer, but I was so pleased to be able to manage it. We had a coffee in the sun and then returned to the cottage.
Our holiday was over but we had made the best of the time and the weather. I am so pleased we went away, it refreshed us both, and gave us more precious memories.

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