“You have possibly incurable cancer.”

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality, 2003

“You have an aggressive cancer of the bladder – best cured by removal of the bladder. But the cancer appears to have spread to the lymph system, making this probably inadvisable. You first need chemotherapy, which has a fifty percent chance of enabling the operation.”

This was the essence of the news I heard from a consultant in one of Belfast’s major hospitals in mid June of 2003. Knowing that bladder cancer can kill if unchecked, I realised my near future was all I had left for certain.

Now, in early August 2003 I am two-thirds of the way through the chemotherapy course. Until this point, with my earth-survival horizon still uncertain and my family still fretting, I haven’t been sure that I could ever find the strength and the inclination to write about this – or anything else for that matter.

I have written before, from a safer distance, about the prospect of dying. For about nine years now I have been a committed Christian and Catholic, familiar with St Paul’s assurance that if we go into the tomb with Christ we rise again.

But there are many degrees of distance from the tomb, and for most of those nine years my distance from it has been very comfortable. I had, especially, until February 2003, good physical health – and therefore no experience of the shattering impact of physical collapse and dependency.

It’s all very well to write and speak heroically about death from that distance, but now I found that when an essential natural function collapses, begins to cause intense pain, and threatens basic survival, all of this romantic long-distance heroism about death collapses also.

I simply wasn’t in any way prepared for the bitter prospect of imminent departure. Aged sixty, I am the eldest of three brothers, with both parents still living, aged ninety-one. They lost my older brother to cancer in 1962, so shouldn’t I be allowed to survive them – to look after them? Wouldn’t any reasonable God agree?

And what about that better book I had planned, and that course of study, and those articles on this and that – and that first trip to the US I had looked forward to, taking advantage of a friend’s invitation?

Most of all though, I was assailed by an intense sense of loss – of losing everything I loved. My wife, my children, my parents, my home, the daily routine, the Ireland I love. I might soon, now, lose everything – to go into total uncertainty, dispossession and powerlessness.

I had previously in my writings drawn a distinction between death and humiliation – but now all separation between the two was lost. Death, I discovered, is in itself the final humiliation – the extinction of everything we humans are surrounded by in life, everything that gives us a sense of our own identity and significance.

I felt also an intense sense of isolation – of having been shut into a cell on my own, which no-one else could really enter – because it was an ante-room to death itself, a departure lounge from which there might well be no return, from which every instinct tells us to fly.

My worst night ever was that night in the hospital – as I faced a painful biopsy and no certainty of living far beyond the end of 2003. My wife was 60 miles away in Coleraine – as I had blithely travelled to Belfast on my own. Doctors and nurses were kind and encouraging, but they could not be with me in my isolation either. When the lights in the ward dimmed about ten and my neighbours turned to sleep I felt a degree of abandonment and loneliness that totally overwhelmed me emotionally – in a way I had never before experienced.

Desperately I sought some solace. As fate, or providence, would have it, I had brought a portable CD player with me – and my wife Patricia had packed a two-disc compilation of Taizé music. Not expecting it to be much help I had no other recourse.

“Lord, hear my prayer!” was soon echoing in my head – and my prayer was for a sense of His presence with me, there in that strange place, with people I did not know. Soon enough came something even more appropriate:

“Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away!”

Somehow the faith of choir singing this became at that moment my faith too, and I began to echo the music and the words.

Suddenly I felt a sense of warmth, and a certainty that I was among friends – even, in some sense, at home. I also felt a sense of time slowing down – and an awareness of slight movements around me that indicated living souls – dependent like myself upon the nursing staff nearby.

Dependent! That was part of my problem – the fear of dependence, of being incapacitated and increasingly useless. But, watching those nurses, I had realised already that their role and sense of duty and fulfilment rested wholly upon the dependence of others. For them it was the expected duty – not something burdensome and tiresome.

There, then, I began to come out of the shell of isolation into which the shocking news had pushed me, and to take a new interest in everything going on around me. By the time the discs had finished, time itself seemed to have slowed down. I even fell asleep for an hour or so.

A few days later I was reminded even more strongly of this sacred relationship between patient and carer, when my chemotherapy regime began. Tethered to an electric pump infusing various obscurely named liquids over a forty-hour period, I was confined to the oncology ward. The pump was clipped to a wheeled stand, allowing me, in theory, to push it ahead of me.

At 2 a.m. I received an urgent bladder signal in the darkened ward. For the sake of my morale I needed to make it to the bathroom eighty yards away. But when I had swung my feet to the floor I found the pump wouldn’t move more than a few inches.

“Are you all right there, darlin’?” came a Belfast accent. A nurse was at my shoulder.

“It’ll work off the battery,” she continued – unplugging the pump from the wall. She looped the cable round the pump, and I set off successfully, dignity maintained.

She had answered my question, the question everyone seems to be asking these times: – “Where is this God of yours when you really need Him?”

The answer was in another one of those Taizé hymns:

“Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est! – Where there is caring and love, God is also!”

And it was there in the ward – among patients I could observe, many of them more ill than I was. I could observe them second-to-second, and I suddenly realised that my perception of time itself had changed.

Our attitude towards time seems to be strongly influenced by our perception of how much of it we have left. For children it seldom passes quickly enough, because it stretches away limitlessly. Although many of us now plan our lives a few years ahead, we somehow assume that the final frontier to this life is beyond every horizon for which we plan.

I could no longer do this. In fact I couldn’t plan anything now but my immediate response to the possibility of death within a year. “Depend upon it, Sir,” said the great Dr Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I had a lot more than a fortnight, but my mind was indeed concentrating hard. By now I was aware of different schools of thought on the subject of cancer itself, its causes and treatments and how to fight it. My daughter had presented me with three different books on the subject and many of her own ideas coincided with those of a friend who is also fighting cancer from an alternative medical standpoint involving a completely organic diet. Hadn’t he told me he had sailed through chemo as a consequence?

First, however, I made what has turned out to be my most crucial decision: to place myself completely under the protection of the one I now call the Great Physician – the healing Lord of the Gospels. The Taize music had given me a sense of the Lord as always present – and especially in the darkest valley of Psalm 23. Above all I did not want to lose my awareness of that presence, whatever happened. I determined that from now on I would simply check out if I felt myself losing this awareness.

By ‘check out’ I mean simply disengage from the moment, close my eyes, and place myself again in the presence of the Lord. By now I had a prayer that allowed me to do this – one familiar to every Catholic:

“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Bring all souls to heaven, especially those in need of thy mercy.”

It’s the first three words, not the mention of hell, that are crucial for me. They immediately state and invite a relationship. The rest of the prayer states a lack of presumption that anyone else is less loved or precious than I am. We don’t know what Hell is – unless it is endless futility and loneliness – but we surely wish to get wherever heaven is. And if we are truly into the spirit of the Gospels we know also that Jesus wishes to save every last one of us.

Something else had helped me immeasurably through that crisis – the messages of support that came from all who knew me – old teaching colleagues, Cursillo friends, Internet contacts abroad. I might now be in the departure lounge, but I was not forgotten – and the most powerful force for healing was active in my regard: prayer.

By day twelve of my hospital stay I was buoyantly looking forward to going home – and I had with me a journal detailing the state of my mind, soul and body from the start of the crisis. I continued to keep it at home – for I had much more to learn from that seat in the departure lounge called cancer. Editor permitting I will cover that in a second article under this heading.

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