Show Hide image

Personal story: What makes us mortal

Twenty years after my father's terminal cancer diagnosis, I listened to my spouse's doctor reveal the same news  but, this time, there was a different outlook. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

The weekly phone call from my mother came earlier than normal that Sunday morning. She usually waited to phone until after 9am Vancouver time, 5pm her time in Glasgow. She knew we would have a more satisfying conversation if she waited until after I had made it to the kitchen to prepare my perfect cup of coffee, and taken it back to bed to listen to the world news on CBC.

I remember registering Mum’s thoughtfulness when I realised she had waited several hours before she phoned, ­holding the news of my father’s terminal diagnosis until after I’d had at least six hours of sleep. 

“Your dad has a glioblastoma,” she said. “A stage four brain tumour.” She knew I’d understand what that meant. There would be no stage five. My life will never be the same again, I thought, as I watched the dust particles float across the sunbeam shining through my bedroom window.

I had worked as an oncology nurse for more than ten years by then, but in that moment I felt the veneer of my professionalism dissolve. I wasn’t a nurse, then, but a 38-year-old daughter grappling with the fact that her 67-year-old father was going to die.

I remember wishing I knew nothing about the grim statistics for a glioblastoma diagnosis. The people at the cancer centre where I worked who were given this diagnosis likely wouldn’t have fully comprehended the trajectory of a glioblastoma at the start. They could make the leap to being hopeful right away – for effective treatment, for a long remission or even for a cure. My medical knowledge felt like a curse that day. Immediately, I booked a flight.

Twenty-two years after my father died, I received a phone call from our family doctor. This time, the news was the results of my spouse’s biopsy. It was a warm summer evening three years ago, and Daphne and I had just eaten dinner on our deck, as the sky turned indigo and the first stars appeared. The rumble of anxiety in my stomach intensified as I heard the doctor’s voice on speakerphone. Our fears were confirmed. “You do have cancer, Daphne. I am sorry. Invasive ductal breast cancer.”

I remember feeling aware of the ordinariness of that moment, as memories of countless people I had worked with over the years rushed into my mind. They, too, would have received a phone call after breakfast or lunch, or, like us, after dinner on a summer evening at home on the deck. They, too, might have been a daughter, or a spouse, hearing that the person they loved most in the world had a disease that could kill them.

Daphne and I suddenly belonged to the club that no one wants to join. A palliative care physician herself, Daphne had crossed over from healthcare professional to patient, and I had surrendered my professional identity again, too. Neither of us had assumed we were immune from a cancer diagnosis simply because of our jobs – but still, it was a shock.

My father’s oncologist had told us that any treatment he received would be futile and that he’d live for three to four months, if he was lucky. My spouse’s oncologist said she would need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but that if all went well, she would have at least a 90 per cent chance of being cured. The same illness – cancer – had led to two very different prognoses. With one, the future collapsed; with the other, it tentatively stretched out until old age.

[See also: Personal Story: My mother’s last words]

The feelings of those first few days and weeks, though, were horribly familiar. When our loved ones are threatened, we feel persecuted and frightened, too. Even though the science told me that Daphne would likely be fine, I didn’t fully trust the prognosis at first. I had known several ­people with stage one cancer who ­developed metastases one to two years after their diagnosis.

Some friends and colleagues assumed that my knowledge, and my professionalism, would protect me from fear and grief. “She has cancer-lite,” one person said. “She’ll be fine.” But no amount of professional experience can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis of someone close to you: it is a visceral experience, not a concept in the mind. I knew for certain that summer two years ago that not only would my loved ones one day surely die, but so too will I.

My father lived 13 weeks from the day he received his diagnosis until his death, and our family chose to fill those days as best we could. We watched as many episodes of Dad’s Army as we could stomach, and drank Marks & Spencer’s champagne at a whim.

Although we had no hope for his ­survival, we had plenty of hope for sweet moments of connection, for a belly laugh and a good cry. We also hoped we could help Dad have a peaceful, pain-free death at home, in the bed he had shared with his wife, my mother, for 38 years.

A year and a half after her diagnosis, my spouse was back full-time to the work she loved, as a palliative care physician, and had resumed riding her bike up ridiculous hills. Now, we choose to inhabit our days differently. We know we have a finite number of days on this Earth and, as with my father’s last days, we make choices about how we want to engage with life.

I still work every day with people living with cancer, some with excellent prognoses, and some with dismal ones. At 61, I now know there will be many more losses to come, both for myself, and for the people I love. With each loss, our lives – my life – will be inevitably, permanently changed. But hope suffuses my days, born of this very understanding that every moment is transient; and every day will end. 

Janie Brown’s “Radical Acts of Love: How We Find Hope at the End of Life” is published by Canongate

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic