Cancer diagnosis is a sudden, terrifying visa stamp to The Kingdom of The Sick. I took that journey. On the way I was faced with a labyrinth of dread options, strange people, murder stories, nightmares and flickers of hope and brightness that invited me to step in, let go, and fall deeper down the rabbithole.
You can find Part One of this Story here….
In the same moment I was told I had cervical cancer, my passport was stamped at the border of a terrible new country.
The Kingdom of the Sick. I had been here before. Its sun is the light of the laboratory. Its moon is the death glow of radiation. It is ruled by a cruel new God called Quick, his mantra … Tick. Tick. Tick.
~ * ~
A frightening diagnosis is terrifying magic that thrusts you head-first into an entirely different universe. But you are not supposed to speak about it.
Standing on the edge of the world as you once knew it, with a death card in your hand is not a place where paths are clear. Things do not make sense. And the industry that provides medical advice, rescue, ‘facts’ , and issues visas to its tours of this Dark Kingdom is not run by people you can really trust. No. It is not. Because they don’t ask for Trust – what they want for their cures, which might be exactly what you need – is faith.
I was learning that too fast.
And if you are diagnosed with a life-threatening or chronic illness, you are also going to find that out.
You are going to find out that you might have to put your faith in people who speak a weird jargon of deliberately confusing codes, who are often arrogant, unavailable, hostile to questions and completely uneducated in options other than the ones they make a living from.
This I knew within minutes. I saw it as the doctor who diagnosed me with cervical cancer stared at me amazed, when I slumped over in sorrow, and said, “Why are you crying? This happens all the time.”
What medicine gave me was not so much guidance, what it gave me was the news.
I had booked in for a routine health check, with no symptoms of ill health, and been delivered within two days to the threshold of a one-way walk in the frightening land known as The Underworld – a cavernous personal hell shaded heavy with despair, grief, confusion and loss, which is ruled by Death, and has no sure exit.
I, like every one of the millions diagnosed with something dire or terminal in our world every minute, was faced with the terrible fact that I had come to a very dark place in my life. I was offered a timebomb and a radioactive beacon. The flash of steel. And cold logic for the journey.
And there was very little I could do about it.
And deep down, I knew it was my fault.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
~ * ~
My appointment with the gynaecologist was urgent. The doctor had made it for me. It was a Tuesday. The sky was mean. I had hauled myself out of my sick bed to shower for it. I had no muscle strength to wash my hair so I tied it up, pulled on a hat, cleaned my teeth, but did not have enough moisture in my mouth to rinse the paste, which stuck like grit.
The surgeon’s rooms were practical. They reeked of efficiency and were presided over by occult Egyptian symbols; Isis, phoenix-like birds, ceremonial scenes and hieroglyphics. A man in his mid-forties, dark, unrelatable, was explaining to me the ease of radical hysterectomy, the schedule of chemotherapy. My death, which was probably imminent without these things. And I could hear the God behind him.. Tick. Tick. Tick.
I couldn’t understand the diagnosis, the stage system, which seemed to be a deliberate shape-shifting cypher that he wouldn’t or couldn’t reveal to me.
Dr XX was incanting a weird jargon of oncological code, like a sermon in Latin, while only two words were smashing around in the glass labyrinth of my mind; Cancer/ Death/ Cancer/ Death, as he babbled on.
He was mapping out the path he would provide. And how it was vital that I took it. But I couldn’t even hear him.
Fight, flight, grief, fear, disbelief , panic and horror were occurring all at once.
Biological catastrophes were ripping through my tissues in waves of aftershock; invisible, internal explosions of adrenaline, terror chemistries, increasing my heart rate, constricting my diaphragm, closing down my peripheral vision, drying my mouth. Emergency physiologies were in full response causing suppression of life-support systems all across my bodysphere which, in magnificent genius ,were rushing to my defence with my body’s own rescue protocols for threats of danger.
These things this surgeon, I was to discover, knew all too well himself.
My questions were always: but what does it all really mean?
Is it actually happening, or is it maybe? Is it pre, or is it actually? It this a cancer story, or a maybe cancer sort of situation? Is this prevention or is this intervention? What’s going on? In simple language?
To all of this he replied in the end, with a dark, fixed gaze, “I can schedule you for hysterectomy within two weeks. This is your best course. This is what you need, you will have to face it.”
“But shouldn’t we do a double check? Shouldn’t we look more deeply into it?
“The tests are never wrong,” he said. “False negatives; sometimes. False positives; never!”
“I don’t think you’re getting how sssssseriousssss this isssss,” he snapped the lid back on his pen, and leaned back in his luxurious leather chair.
I became awkwardly aware of my breathing in the seconds after this prognosis. It was as if I had to watch over my lungs, which were suddenly unsure of what to do. I felt disgusting in my clothes. I just wanted to go home, to bed, and sleep. forever.
Maybe he was right. Maybe he was my salvation. It was that sort of situation – it was a high pressure sell, it was a now or never, jump or die dilemma, and I hated him for it.
I hated how he had reduced my freedom, disrespected my questions and shrivelled my sovereignty down to nothing but the weak compliance he demanded, and which also, I knew, would pay his mortgage.
A wave of insult surged through me and I knew, right then, that I would never go under this man’s knife – which was a lucky decision, because as it turned out, women had died by doing so, not that long before me.
Dr XX must have had, in some parallel dimension, complete awareness of how I felt, because he too had already experienced, and was continuing to face a personal disaster of terrifying proportions.
Cat cool, less than a meter before me, this man had been involved in the death of at least two women, under his knife, during routine delivery of the same gynaecological procedure he was offering me.
He was the presiding surgeon at these deaths, not from cancer, but from preventative treatment, and was under investigation for malpractice and manslaughter.
But he didn’t tell me that. It was his own little secret.
You can see a similar story here… where a woman died in surgery and her doctor was convicted…
~ * ~
I don’t remember leaving the doctor’s office, though I knew I would never see it again. Behind me I imagined him stalking through his chamber, thrashing his reptilian tail, devouring plastic organs from his gynaecological models.
I had a scrap of paper with his name on it. A street address. A phone number. For the hospital. I got into the car. Like a sick person. I had become an instant invalid. The life was knocked right out of me. I was smaller. I was hunched. I didn’t want the music on.
At home the little winter flowers on the driveway were invisible to me. I saw only the giant front door, which seemed lopsided, like a monastery gate, a hundred miles into the fog, along a glaciated trail.
Like a drunk, staggering to hermitage, I zeroed in on it while the car, the yard, the barren winter trees, the crow on the gate all warped and finally dropped out of visibility.
Inside, my vision tunnelled down, down, down the unlit corridor, to the bedroom door, on the right, I staggered to the silver shadow of the bed, to the safe grey tissue of unmade sheets, a dark nest of pillows. I ripped everything off me as I went, leaving a trail of shoes, coat, scarf, shirt, skirt, everything peeled off like skin, before I climbed into that linen boat to be re-wombed, alone, with the curtains drawn and the door closed.
My little dog, Pip, had snuck through a crack.
She and I stayed there, her little body tucked close to the curve of my belly, breathing a steady tide against me, as we rode storms, cyclones and all manner of hell between dread spells of wakefulness and dreams that ripped through my consciousness like intrusions by David Lynch.
I am lying on an operating table. It is this bed. A soft light cascades like an elfen waterfall through the long silk curtain. My body is laid out flat, there are no people here, and no instruments. I have woken gently, halfway through this procedure. I am hovering above myself, to the right. From here I can see my body below me, my belly rising and falling, a faint sheen of dusky radiance glows over me from high above. This scene is silvertone.
Instruments are being moved inside me. They are expert, swift, precise. Unpicking, unravelling, knitting, re-weaving tissues and threads around my womb. There is no pain. The movements are gentle, thorough. I am in my body now, I am feeling this sewing, it is comforting, I am safe, I look around . Who is here? Who is doing this?
Then I see her, high, to the left. Crouched in the corner of the ceiling, a huge silver spider has her perch, legs bracing her to the walls as her long, gentle claws weave away, re-working the webbing, deep in my body. All is well. This is good.
I woke up, nauseous at finding myself still in the world, and turned over, pushing back down into the wall of the bed, forcing myself to go back under, into sleep, where I was doing the hard work of dream, and where there were no choices.
I stayed like this for days. I did not wear clothes. I did not eat much, maybe some toast. Maybe some biscuits. My partner, Scott, sulked, and Pip would not leave my side. I didn’t wash my hair for four days. I did not drink much water. I paid no mind to daylight, dark or clock time. I hid from this Dark God I had accidentally summoned, and lived by time, eternal.
~ * ~
In psychology and myth cycles, The Underworld is the dread kingdom we roam when marked for depression, betrayal, exile, sickness, madness, agony or grief.
In story, myth and movies, The Underworld is the cosmic cave which keeps the treasures of the soul. But these gifts are dangerously won. They are not visible at the threshold. They are never advertised.
The way is bleak. It reeks of dragon shit and bear.
The Underworld is the territory of transformation that modern people lost when we stopped taking rites of passage, vision quests and listening to our ancients. We lost the navigation lore for this dark world when we stopped listening to our dreams, abiding in our grief, telling the old courage-making stories, and traded our inheritance of intuition for the facts and efficiencies of progress,
In medicine and psychiatry it is a territory of the human lifecycle constantly bombed, denied or shrouded in fog by anti-depressants, chemical warfare launched at brain, flesh, personality and the subconscious of individuals who find themselves at its borders and are given pharmaceutical help.
In story though, this is the dangerous territory of all great adventures.
Every powerful story is really a quest through The Underworld. And all quests go bad, as we know from the movies, when their heroes either fall into dangerous hands, or refuse the adventure. Then the story is a sad or even horrifying one.
Entry, however, when you arrive at this threshold, is inevitable. There are rules. You must step through alone. You must go quietly. At least as first. You may bring no luggage, and everything you carry; charms, clothing, jewellery, slippers, opinions will be taken as you go.
Of those you will meet here, the underworld’s inhabitants, it is never clear – who are the good guys? and who are the hunters? Who holds the magic oil that can redeem you? And who offers apples, spiked with poison.
But each of us, when faced with the entrance to this cave, will see the jaws of Life, which feeds on death, and it still ruled by Mystery. It’s not easy. It takes courage to step in, toward your own destruction. Or your possible transformation.
It is dark ahead. If there are any lamps they are strange and unreliable. The walls are alive, stinking of sweet wild life, and rot. The floor is uneven. You are not allowed to bring a friend.
This is what is really happening inside a human being at times like this. Outside, they may keep up appearances – at least for a while. And though they might look the same, to family, friends, waiters and even medical experts, they are not seeing any thing, or any one the way they did just minutes ago – and they never will again.
Every thing is different. Pencils, curtains, roads, bicycles, phones, clothes… nothing looks the same. Horizontal lines seem unreliable. Vertical ones undulate. Birds and trees and clouds seem very very far away. Kettles, over-engineered and clunky. Shoes, massive and strange.
This is happening, whether they opt for surgery and chemo, or whether they do not. We are all united here. And it is happening when you get this news about your son, or when you find out your partner is a liar, or your car has been trashed, or you cat is runover, or you married the wrong man.
The labyrinth is ruled by the cervix. Fierce demons guard this doorway. They will taunt you with temptations of suicide, ambush, escape, deals, outrage, weeping. Inside, the hot room is ruled by Death. His Queen, the Sphinx. He will ask a riddle. She will trick you. That is how it goes.
Perhaps this sounds like fantasy. But you go ahead. You ask. Ask people you know. Ask yourself. We have all been here. There are those who can tell you this – and there are those, all of you, eventually, who will one day understand me.
~ * ~
The legacy of modern reason is the old Cartesian idea that body and mind are split entities. This as how we separated feeling from thinking, nature from progress, psyche from fact, spirituality from everyday life. This thinking has enabled us to learn tremendous facts about the world, true, and invent life-saving medicines, and life-destroying technologies, but it has come at the expense of the animals we tortured and vivisected in pursuit of science, and the environment, which we filled with chemicals, poisons and plastics along the way, and our own souls and bodies, which are sicker now than they ever been in History.
Science, in gaining its wonderful prizes, provided the exact conditions where expert help and personal empowerment, physical health and psychology, sickness and emotion, nature and technology have turned against each other.
That is also how we have subtly fallen into the agreement that cancer means war.
War on the body. War on the psyche.
Cancer creates patients who are supposed to obediently head into battlefields where chemical and other weapons are turned on us, for our own good, by our selves.
And it helps many. But is fails many.
If we struggle with conscription, we are seen as insubordinate.
This is why it was so very hard to know, in those critical days of choice – just what to do about cancer.
And this is why, if you show signs of it, you are never asked by a medical doctor; is there anything in your environment, your diet, your relationship, your history, your soul – that might be making you sick?
Is there is something, somewhere , or someone, some deal, that could be undermining your health, your confidence, your will to live?
If theses questions were asked, we would never have taken so ridiculously long to discover the links between asbestos, talcum powder, lead paints, weed killers, x-ray, smoking, air pollution, water contamination and stress as causes for the cancer that is eating away at us, everywhere.
Oncology medicine, still, is defiantly refusing to admit what it’s sister disciplines already know – that stress, as well as genetics and mutation, also causes cancer, and other immune diseases. And what doctors MUST start to ask is what else is going on?
If they had asked me that I would have been able to admit what I was later to confess in a nightmare of solitary anguish, which was that my partner had not only knowingly infected me with the virus that had caused this, but was actually undermining and destroying me.
That I was a long way down the Wrong Way and that it was just possible that my body had finally turned all this suffering into a physical expression.
Perhaps it was coming to terms with this, and changing it, that eventually cured that tumour?
Perhaps it was the changes I made; to my diet, my path, my lifestyle?
Perhaps it was everything I gave away; my security, my compromises, my dignity as well?
Perhaps it was the wise man I found, who advised me to go out, drink six beers, and scream blue murder at the forest? Then take my own authority.
Or perhaps none of this really worked, and cancer is still lurking somewhere in me…
Tick. Tick. Tick.
~ * ~
For two months I staggered around in Australia, looking for somebody to tell me the news in a way that I could hear it.
I moved back home, to the quiet coastal town of remote Bundeena where I knew great surgeons I could talk to, where I knew grief counsellors, oncologists, and a maze of long, secret trails kept by she oak, eucalypt, angophra, magpie, brown snake, sweetwater, eel and yabbie. Places of ancient quiet, never broken by the cut of progress.
I wanted to sign up for surgical help. I wanted to live. But I couldn’t find, in all the rooms, neat, adorned with pictures of babies, and plastic human body parts, and charts, and frightening surgical chairs, one single person who I trusted to use a knife on me.
Not one doctor ever saw in me what they all should have known: that I, like any other animal exposed to stress, was experiencing predictable, natural, BIOLOGICAL trauma – a natural responses to distress – which should be well under the purveyance of a medical expert, and easily managed by an oncologist. Triage and soothing of acute distress should have be included in their handling of the individual before them – every dentist knows this. But oncology, in my experience, deftly, even callously ignored what was painfully obvious: that I was going mad.
And every one of the surgeons who handled me at that time me should have known that it was not, actually, logical to ask me to make a serious decision. Because I was not, biologically, capable of it.
First, there was the psychological shock. The trauma ignored. And which, in one way, was the only actually logical thing going on at all.
In shock there are profound closures to systems of listening, sight, comprehension, reason – every process that would allow a calm, safe person to assess their situation and make a choice.
And I was not a calm, sane person. I was a woman on the run.
Again and again I felt almost ritualistically split into surreal parts; my body became an object – requiring technological intervention; my intelligence was jettisoned into orbit from its habitat, and required to make rational decisions under immense pressures of time and risk, from a place of cold separation from its emotional, intuitive, protective intelligences. The soul? The psyche? The counsel of my inner voice? Irrelevant.
Perhaps that was how that first surgeon, the one who spooked me, managed to keep signing women up for surgery, even though his own profession, and the Australian legal system, was in the middle of deciding, through its own dissections of expertise, whether to sentence him to his own journey of loss, shame, punishment and loss of liberty.
Be sensible. That’s what he said was required. Not my questions. Not time. Not comfort.
And I was ripped to shreds with the ricochet of paradox. Was he helping me? Was he insane? Was this right? Was I being stupid, to ask for space, for options?
Tick. Tick. Tick.
~ * ~
The Kingdom of the Sick, despite what modern culture says, and what the brochures at the doctor’s office promise, and what we all would like to think: is not a place where your human worth means that much. Your feelings, actually, don’t factor. Your choices become whittled away faster than cancer is rumoured to be eating your flesh. Your signature, your insurance, your terror are what you’re worth.
In my case, and perhaps it is different for others, but I have talked many through the hell of the early days of diagnosis, and seen the same existential agony over and over, I knew that singing up meant absolute loyalty to the most terrifying sort of leadership. That my options and explorations would be rapidly shut down. That I was being fitted with blinkers and a saddle, and ridden toward an inevitable slaughterhouse of knives, unconsciousness, radiation, chemo, nausea, weakness, shame, vulnerability, ongoing procedures, lifelong uncertainty and dependency – from which I could emerge, cured – or in which I could spend the rest of my life.
I knew what the landscape of chemotherapy looks like. We all do. I knew it is most often the beginning, and not the end of a radical, expensive and traumatic tour of duty, which has success rates around 50/50, but saves some lives – was mine among them?
Perhaps that was what was needed?
Perhaps I was lucky to be here?
But how could I know? And why was it, that with billions pouring into cancer research each year, and into cancer care and cancer awareness that what I was receiving here, and would all the way along, would be so be pitifully lacking in skill, clarity, education, details, orientation or overview of my scenario.
No manual was provided. No literature with solid, thorough, helpful information on cancer, or the cervix, or the test results and what they meant, or the surgery and the logic behind it, or on how to take care of myself in any way.
I had received more careful support and aftercare with a pedicure.
A jar of face cream comes with more thorough paperwork than a cancer diagnosis. That is a fact!
This is how this industry is really operating. And one of the ways it gets away with it is because under the guise of ‘service’, the medical world pretends, all the way along, that it is not a profit-making enterprise.
That is all carefully hidden, and absolutely TABOO to ever dare to mention.
To dodge these uncomfortable questions, requests for facts and extra effort, the doctors simply sit back in their chairs, and glance at the timebomb they keep beside them for these scenarios.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The longer you take wasting time working out where you are, and what to do, and who to trust… tick. tick, tick… the cancer clock is counting, and your death is drawing closer.
I was in no place to make a sensible decision for my self. I had become, in fact, my own worst enemy, literally. Because what I had been told was that my body was no longer safe to live in. That, on matters of my own life or death, my body was my enemy. It couldn’t be trusted.
Not unless they did things to me.
Things – all of them – which were terrible.
~ * ~
The ocean was twinkling like a beautiful turquoise catastrophe days later, as sleek crows eyed me sideways from the giant trees over Jibbon Beach as I opened The Sydney Telegraph at my seaside cafe to find a disturbingly familiar face staring back at me.
There was Dr XX.
My latte curdled in my mouth.
I read on, every word a rivet.
The story outlined how he was on trial for malpractice in gynaecological surgery on the New South Wales south coast. Women had died in routine operations. Questions were being asked. My blood ran cold, but a strange heat filled my veins – I could trust myself. At least, I could trust myself this one little bit.
Dr XX had told me that if I refused medical treatment I was signing my death warrant. But he hadn’t told me about this. He had implied that I was scared, and basically cowardly, that I was bucking at the gate because I was spooked. He had probably said this to all his customers.
And Ahhh…. yes, it was true. He was right. I was certainly spooked. But it was more than that. I knew that if I took the cut and burn path I would be forever committed to it. And the people who would cut and burn? I just didn’t trust them.
They were rolling loaded dice. Every toss turned up their medicines. They were narrowing my options to the ones they sold, they were putting me under horrific pressure, on risk of horrific outcomes, and this seemed more like extortion to me than help. And they don’t talk about the massive losses, and complex outcomes of their medicine. They don’t talk about the ones they can’t save, or the ones, apparently, who died for other reasons, along the way.
Doctors have bad bedside manner, don’t let it put you off. It doesn’t mean anything. Just keep going. It’s part of the deal.
I didn’t like that argument. For me, bad bedside manner was code for lazy professional conduct, rudeness, fright and a lack of genuine care and empathy.
Give a person like that a knife, immunity from scrutiny, status and huge profit – well, isn’t that a formula almost guaranteed to go wrong … somewhere down the line?
Where is it written, and what are the checks that ensure all doctors are nice, safe, wise people? That’s not a guaranteed fact.
Actually, using their own code of science, just by observing these people – it was obvious that though they did have their terrifying codes, secret languages and access to weapons, they were mostly neither wise, nor interested in the trauma they were inflicting on me with their tests and their options.
NOTHING a medical person did at this time ever led me to believe that they had my actual best interests at heart.
Which is exactly the nightmare of paradox that is, in the myth cycle of The Underworld – a universal story concerned with developing character, with transformation, with meanings more deep and subtle than reason, with those excruciating choices that can only be solved by either jumping, or not jumping – which mark the entrance to the cave.
If one were calm, able to witness such a moment in one’s own life story, one would be able to feel actually blessed to be here. Because these are holy moments when life brings us to her own palace of mystery, in order to strip away our identities and offer us the treasures of growth, humility and insight.
~ * ~
I was 39.
And I had a friend who I knew had had several surgeries, including radical hysterectomy.
Sue, a dietitian and personal medical assistant to a famous Australian doctor who claimed cures through liver cleansing, had not had an easy time of it. She lived about ten doors from where I abandoned my coffee, stole the newspaper, and threw $5 on the table.
About three years ago, Sue had told me, she had screamed out one night, in a rage of depression and anxiety “God! Give me a sign! What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” And woken up with a failed kidney.
And ended up having it exorcised. And had been on dialysis ever since.
She had had the hysterectomy later, as part of an ongoing series of surgeries, medical invasions and life saving kidney treatments.
I found her at home, trimming her lavender, and took her down to the pretty private beach that both our cottages were perched above to ask her for her thoughts.
She told me her story; she was telling me mine.
“This is the choice: shut up, take the medicine, place your faith entirely in the knife, the radiation, the cocktail that is chemotherapy, which is old school science now, with no promise of success.
“Let them take your uterus, ovaries, everything – in hopes they will scoop out all evidence of the bad, and believe them when they say, “Hysterectomy? At your age? No problem. It’s easy. It’s a simple procedure. Very painless. Quick recovery. No long term effects. Safe. Actually, probably convenient for you, given your age.”
Her face, pinched with the yellow clue of dialysis, blazed with anger and with grief.
“Jade, I am going to tell you this,” she said. “That hysterectomy, I regret it. I was the worst decision I ever made.
Look at me, and let me tell you this: it ruined my life. In ways I don’t even want to talk about. You have cancer? I don’t know. But what I can tell you for sure: that doctors, all the doctors who say that surgery is no big deal to women: they are lying. They are flat out lying. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me. And I’m including kidney failure.”
Sue hung her head, and drew a stick along the sand and its minute geometries of broken shell, urchin, tiny cubes of tumbled glass which issued up a soft scent of wild salt and watercress.
The sun was going down.
There was nothing else to say.
Was there some sort of conspiracy? going on Gynaecology? Is this even believable?
What I was to find out was that, and more.
After I cured myself of the cancer, and the virus that was supposed to cause it, with no surgery, and no chemicals, I was disowned by the doctors – and my own cancer support group of women BANNED me from telling this story.
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