My hands wrapped around the warm mug, my tea now spoiled by the salty tears dripping into the milky mixture. Three unfamiliar nurses congregated around me. One held my limp left hand that wouldn’t clasp hers back, another reached her arm around my shoulder and would periodically wrap her other arm across my chest in unreciprocated hug, and the third nurse, with her hand on my right leg, spoke in her thick Tralee accent reassuring me that I could cry to her all evening if it would help.
“I’m just terrified.” With those words emptying my mouth, my tears began to rain relentlessly, and my breathing became more laboured. There was a heavy weight inside my lung, and I strained to lift it each time I tried to suck in a deep breath of cool air. Each strenuous and tearful gasp for oxygen felt as though my ribs were splintering, the shards stabbing into my left lung after every painful inhale.
As the commotion persisted, the palliative care doctor – who I had become quite fond of during my days spent in the Tralee University Hospital – had abandoned the plush arm chair beside me and was hovering anxiously at the end of my bed. She shifted from one foot to the other, and her nervous fingers fiddled with the chunky necklace perched on her chest. Seeing my devastation, I suspected she regretted letting me metaphorically have a peek at my patient file by releasing the information she knew would be explained in further detail to me the following day. Initially she had fluttered around the topic of my mortality that my questions had drawn her closer to, but eventually she understood that I needed the transparency. She spoke cautiously, as she explained the possibility that the oncologist I would speak with tomorrow may say there was nothing more that they could do for me.
I woke the following morning with swollen eyes and layered in an abundance of fears. Fears I hadn’t had before, but they now took precedence and made all others irrelevant. The phobia that laid most heavily on me was seeing my health and my body decline in the months approaching my death, leaving only a cracked shell of the vibrant and lively person I once had been. I was scared to watch myself die.
Shortly after waking, I was told to put on a sweater before being led into another room where the oncologist could show me my scans. He had pictures for his presentation. I sat at a round table and adjusted my chair to face the doctor who was perched at a computer in the far corner of the room. My mother and step-father cowered in the opposite corner, their faces drained from any colour while they waited, as anxious as I was, for what would be said. I stared beyond the face of my oncologist to the computer screen behind him. It displayed black and grey images, and although I could infer that they were my lungs, I couldn’t comprehend what the grey marks and smudges indicated.
“Shall we all sit down?” The Palliative Care Doctor was here for the meeting as well, and I wondered if she had confessed her transgression from the previous night to the oncologist. My parents took their seat, all of us already aware of the news that the large elephant in the room carried.
We were told that no biopsy was required. They knew that it was Ewing Sarcoma terrorizing my insides for the fourth time. Within eight weeks the cancer had metastasized, extending its deadly tendrils far enough to encase the outer layer of my lung called the pleura. With the mutated cells spreading so aggressively, the doctor told me that my cancer was now considered to be stage four. With somber tones, they described that surgery was not a viable option due to the location of the cancer, and since it was wrapping around my lung rather than in an isolated location, radiation would not be the right course of action either. They reiterated what my Canadian oncologist had written in the medical records sent the Irish team, stating that they did not see positive results from chemotherapy, indicating that my body has learnt to resist its effects after having endured the poison in 2014 when I was initially diagnose with Ewing Sarcoma. I heard their words without really listening to them, until they mentioned that there could be an alternative type of chemo they could try, but at this stage it would only prolong my life. Those last words I heard so clearly as if they were spoken directly into my ear: prolong my life. Did that imply that i had an expiry date that they could attempt to extend with some chemical concoction?
“Can you explain more wha stage four means” I knew I had to ask the hard questions to get to the answers that I was searching for, but didn’t want to hear. With slow and sad sentences, they told me that my cancer was terminal. I asked if they could estimate how long I had, because I would want to know if my time was short.
“What does short mean to you?”
The two doctors silently looked at each other, a gesture that terrified me. Although the exchanged look was only for only a few seconds, it felt like minutes to me. Everything appeared to move more slowly in those seconds before any response left their mouths. They were awkward in telling me, as though it was hard to formulate their sentences, but eventually I understood that with how aggressive my cancer was spreading, that they estimate it would take my life in a matter of months.
Two months prior, I had confidently gotten onto a plane bound for the Emerald Isle after my Canadian oncologist had happily shared with me that the tumour found on my ribs near my vertebrae had shrunk significantly from radiotherapy. With excitement coating her voice, she told me to “go enjoy yourself in Ireland without any stress, and make sure to have a couple pints for me.” I took her advice. I even spent some time in Spain having a mojito in her name, clinking glasses together with my friend and toasting to my health. However, my cancer was more stubborn than me, a trait I was notorious for. It had clung to my body, determined to consume me regardless of the poisonous cocktail we doused it with, or the scalpels used to exorcise it like a demon from my body. Not even the radioactive shots targeted at its core could stop it from its purpose. Those treatments didn’t seem to reduce the tumour or mitigate its growth, instead it angered the mass, causing it to become more aggressive. It had put a bounty on my head, and it wanted me brought in dead.