Readers Are Not Strangers: Cancer and the mythical journey

The experience of being struck down by cancer is very interesting. Assuming it doesn’t kill you very quickly (and it does sometimes kill speedily and without mercy) the cancer sufferer can find himself or herself launched on an heroic journey. By that I don’t mean that I’m a hero because I have cancer; I mean ‘heroic’ in the mythical sense, in that your life is suddenly propelled along a remorseless narrative that has the structure of all great mythical journeys.

Of course, I see things in this way because I’m a writer. I can’t help myself. But here’s how it goes (and so you don’t still think I’m talking about me, I’ll couch this in the feminine mode).

The hero of the journey (or protagonist if you don’t like the word hero) is struck by a lightning bolt from the Gods. She is immediately displaced from the equilibrium of her steady day-to-day world and projected into a frightening and chaotic new world where the rules have been altered. Like Odysseus and his crew, she tries to find her way home. This is the quest.

The quest is for the restoration of good health. Now, health has become wealth. A kind of Holy Grail, or a Vessel of Plenty that was lost and must be found again.

But in that world, and standing in the way of her quest object is a terrifying enemy. Cancer is a ferocious, dark force, a Darth Vader figure from Star Wars, or Sauron from Lord Of The Rings. The enemy pursues her. She is required to do fierce battle with that enemy, and the outcome is uncertain.

Worse, still, she has neither the skills nor the experience to fight or outwit such a terrible enemy. She is reduced to the role of a child in the face of this monstrous opposition. If you think this is fanciful, consider this: when I was diagnosed, my decline was rapid and shocking. I was propelled back to an almost infant state. I even looked like a baby. I dropped masses of weight; the first chemotherapy made my hair fall out; and in those early days I had to be helped to feed. I even lost control over my bodily functions for a while. As I say, for a few weeks I was an infant. Like The Fool in the Tarot I was just setting out, with no experience of this new world. And very quickly the lupine enemy had me in its jaws.

But then came the allies to my defence and rescue. My wife was there at the front line, but, doctors and nurses armed with knowledge, skills and experience took up the fight. Obi Wan Konobi and Hans Sol and Princess Leila. You get the idea. But amongst them Wise Healers, armed with potions of almost magical and dangerous intensity. Read chemotherapy, truly a very volatile and heavy medicine. Slowly the enemy pulled back. For a while the enemy was driven from the castle gates, there to lay siege from a short distance, growling, waiting.

These allies helped me to move from the stage of Fool or Baby to one of Apprentice. In many great mythical stories a period of training then follows. Mental and physical training. A period in which there are trials. Each bout of chemotherapy produces new barriers of pain, discomfort and overwhelming fatigue. But the hero must stay positive. More inspirational allies come with gifts of shields and winged sandals in the form of medication, positive thinking and routines and cleansing rituals. In real life these routines involve exercise, nutritional focus, meditation, spiritual support as Wise Women appeared (from the Penny Brohn organisation) with invaluable counsel.

And the dark road is full of picaresque characters in the form of fellow travelers. On the ward I met a boxer and a biker and a barrister (amongst other professions, not all beginning with B). Sometimes it seems on the ward that you are all shadow figures in an Underworld, all trying to work a way back across the river of Hades, or trying to find a way back to the surface.

Many writers have contacted me, effectively pledging to me their swords. Others -old pals, new friends- continue to rally to the flag. Just as Luke Skywalker discovered a network of rebels fighting against the Dark Force, so you make alliances with fellow sufferers, along with many friends and even strangers who shine a light in the darkness. I wrote about how Readers are not Strangers in a previous blog, alluding to the outpouring of goodwill. It is humbling and elevating.

There are lights in the darkness. Not everyone is overcome by the enemy. There appears for some a way of defeating the enemy. Reports and rumours of survival are numerous. Stars twinkle in the darkness.

The Apprentice changes his or her appearance, and is no longer an inexperienced infant or The Fool. Post chemotherapy the colour of my facial hair has changed. It had, to my surprise when I stopped shaving it, turned silver. I joked on facebook that “I was Graham The Grey. I fought with my enemy upon the mountain. I am now Graham The White.” Of course the correct quotation for Gandalf after his heroic battle with the Balrog is “From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him, the Balrog of Morgoth… Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.” Which is better but I’m not quite there yet.

I have at least one more dark night of the soul to face. It comes in the form of a choice. A dividing of the path. I have the chance of stem-cell transplant. You can elect to have your own stem-cells transplanted or look for a donor transplant. I have two brothers (haha! there is a world-wide sub-genre of mythic folk-journeys in which there are always three brothers) who are prepared to donate their stem-cells. Sometime the Great Ally can seem treacherous. The donor route offers a slim possibility of a “cure” but the risks of fatality and chronic disability are pretty horrendous. As for me I have elected to go with my own stem-cells, which offers a very good possibility of a deeper remission. The longer term battle will continue.

But something strange happens on the mythic journey. The quest-object, in this case good health, transforms. It is not the same prize that the hero expected to find. Or in another version it was in her pocket, or under her feet. It was there all the time. And it was something even more valuable.

Sue regularly accuses me – a life-long atheist – of being a closet-deist. Or if not a closet deist then certainly guilty of being found in possession of spiritual DNA. Maybe she is right. I’m writing this as we approach the winter solstice this evening. We will light a fire in the garden. I have a thousand gratitudes – no, I mean infinite gratitude – to express and my journey isn’t over. I can still be an atheist when I have the shining love of my family and friends. I have the goodwill of so many of you who read these blogs or who have written encouraging words to me over this past year. My ardent wish for you, reader, as the earth in this hemisphere begins to turn back towards the light, is for creativity, more light and for love.

Winter solstice 21/12/2013

In memory of Joel Lane, writer 1963-2013