There is a particular intersection in Melbourne that simply reeks of cancer.
For me. I guess it wouldn’t for most people. For most people, it is where an unremarkable local street meets an endoscopy centre and a cemetery.
For me, it is the beginning of all of this. And the end of all of that.
We had visited this intersection countless times, I am sure. Driving through and around, up and down, on our way through a day or an evening. On our way through life. But then we visited in March 2017, to hear the results of my very first MRI. The scan that found my cancer.
At that time, until that moment, on that night, I didn’t know cancer. Didn’t know fear. Didn’t know despair. Didn’t know hope. And, frankly, didn’t know myself.
I remember waiting to exit the driveway of the endoscopy centre, taking our cancer news home for the very first time. The sun had set and the traffic was heavy. Tim watched the cars and trams and cyclists, and I watched the cemetery.
I just watched.
Over the coming weeks and months, I came to appreciate the poignancy of meeting cancer on the doorstep of a cemetery. But not at the time. At the time, I just watched. Death. The end. So close, just there, right in front of me.
As the details of my cancer diagnosis were revealed over the coming weeks, I began to join the dots. Cancer was inside me. In truth, cancer was me. There was too much of it. I was past the point of help.
The exorbitant cancer drugs and the buckets of research and the miracles and medical marvels – the hope – they were not for me. The pain and fear and sadness and tragedy – that was mine.
My cancer experience was going to be the sad post that you see on Facebook. The one you scan over, probably too quickly, as you are scrolling between memes and recipes and fake competitions and photos posted by your Nana. The story that has been reshared and reposted months after my death, because that’s how tragic it is. It makes you shudder a little, perhaps shake your head.
“So young”. “That poor baby boy and his daddy”. “Life is so unfair”. “So much promise”. “What a waste”. “F*ck cancer”.
I couldn’t face that intersection for months. It made my skin crawl and my heart race. It made me nauseous. It made me furious. It made me terrified.
One afternoon, driving along with my mum, I announced “I love this intersection”. It became a running joke between us. She would say it, or I would. Or neither of us would bother – but we both knew.
Some months later, as we approached and mum declared her love, I realised I hadn’t seen it coming. I wasn’t even watching. There was no dread or anticipation or fear. I was focused on something else. I had moved on.
Simple as that, then – time heals all wounds. Let the moment pass and focus your energy elsewhere, and even the complete anguish that is a terminal cancer diagnosis can be vanquished…?
I am not sure it is this simple. In fact, I know it is far more complicated. Mostly because of what happened next.
Hurrying between appointments and errands last week, I felt a nagging need to visit my intersection. I was drawn to it. I went out of my way to get there. I stopped. Put the car into park. Turned off the ignition. And sat.
I took in the trees. Noted the signage on the front of the endoscopy centre. Watched cars enter the nearby carpark and a single mourner exit the cemetery. Listened to a tram rumble past.
I felt an overwhelming sense of pride. Of achievement. I sat with a quiet smile on my lips. My heart felt warm and full.
It wasn’t just about the fact that I could be there. It was the fact that I wanted to be.
As I reflect on this moment now, I can’t help but be analytical. I love a teaching moment, particularly with cancer in tow. I have always been self-aware, but even this is changing in me. I used to reflect on the status quo, the truth of who I am. Now, I ruminate on all I can still become.
In dealing with this intersection, my intersection, I have moved from resentment, through acknowledgement, via peace, to enlightenment. It is achingly cliché to type, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
This place is now at the epicentre of Nicole. Rightly or wrongly, it is at the core of me. Central to what defines me now, in my new normal. And just sitting there in it is the kind of activity that moves me from angry to aware. Hopeless to hopeful.
* * *
I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I should have been over the last three months. Not because I haven’t had things to say. In truth, I have probably had too much to say. Once you start down the path of meaningful self-reflection – and announcing said reflection to the world – there always seems to be something else to say.
But my focus has instead been on all of the things I have to do.
In the last few months, I have darted chaotically across the cancer patient map. The dizzying heights of a ‘no evidence of disease’ PET scan. The disabling terror of a potential new disease site. The hungry hope of a novel immunotherapy treatment. Another planned hospital admission and another unplanned hospital admission. Stopping IV chemo, starting maintenance chemo.
I have completed my first spin class since my lung surgery. And then completed another two. I have been following the instructions of my exercise physiologist with precision and focus – and then recklessly abandoning said instructions, to push my exercise prescription, my health, my body, my future, even further.
I have met with hospital CEOs and been asked to join a state government exercise and cancer committee and met some of Australia’s leading cancer entrepreneurs. I have spent a day at Canberra’s Parliament House and spoken to Senators and chiefs of staff and policy officers to build a case for exercise medicine to be available to all cancer patients, everywhere. I have been on the front page of The Age and national radio and live breakfast TV.
And I have worked every week in my day job. Every single week. Meaningful work, that is growing our family business towards what we have aspired to create for so many years.
I have never felt more productive, more driven, more disciplined in the pursuit of what I want.
I thank my cancer for what it has given me. Every. Single. Day.
The people. The clarity. The ambition. The confidence.
Because the version of me with cancer, who has to deal with liver and lung lesions and chemotherapy; the hair loss and the steroid shoulders; the tests and the scans and the jabs and the scars; and a deeply unsettling and uncertain future – this person, is the same person who sees wonder in simply sitting in this uncertainty. And embracing this future. Who hunts out an intersection for what it can teach.
There is so much to learn about ourselves as we navigate this life. What we are capable of, what is holding us back, and what we must boldly chase after, right now.
Just sitting on a street can be enough. From here, it might just all make sense.