In February 2012, I found myself in the ICU of Sydney’s largest teaching hospital one night surrounded by seven or so young doctors and nurses in heated discussion about what should be done.
I was not at the beginning of the colorectal cancer journey. I was somewhere in the fog of the middle — where those of us shadow — boxing with advanced disease seem to always find ourselves. Two transplant surgeons had in hours before operated on my liver to remove metastasized cancer that was discovered on diagnosis in October of 2010, at the age of 48.
My lungs had collapsed to the size of small cauliflowers — 30 percent of their size — following the accidental puncture of my diaphragm during the surgery. It sounded serious yet all I could do was fumble along the top of the bed for the hands of a young Indian doctor who seemed to be tasked with deciding my treatment. He ummed and erred.
Doctor, I said to his surprise, you have the most velvety hands. I did not feel fear, though I felt a surreal loss of control. I strongly believed from all I knew about hospitals that the people at my bed at this most critical moment would pull me through. Somehow my words lifted the cloud around my bed, and the doctor decided to treat me with drug therapy and intermittent respiratory therapy, rather than a stronger intervention.
This scene is always in my mind when I think of what is my story. Because it represents for me the point at which I truly became aware of my mortality and what I was dealing with in cancer. Before my chest and lungs were affected, I was not truly a sick person. I sailed through my surgeries and other gut-defying treatments. I collected the imaginary gold stars of my surgeons and doctors as I tripped and wheeled along the corridors of hospitals and waiting rooms, wanting to excel as a patient. The blows did not batter me. Yet this experience, where I felt suspended in body and time, surrounded by alarm and medical expediency, drove it home in an instant. This was serious, and it wasn’t going away.
Beyond the initial treatment for CRC, there is another frontier. It is this one, on which I find myself, having turned the corner that night in a small pool of light amidst the shadows of the ICU.