Dialog Box


Life, love and cancer in a time of coronavirus


By Cassandra Bennett 

I was living in Boston, USA on 9/11. I was a freshly minted 21-year-old college athlete at Northeastern University. I was young, a long, long way from home and terrified. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I was racing in a time trial on the Charles River. I was forever changed by what I saw that day, the knowledge that a friend had lost a family member in the first tower and that I was potentially unable to return home for a very long time.

Today, when I talk about 9/11 I realise that each person’s experience of the day is deeply personal. The onset of the coronavirus will have an even more profound impact. We will recall where we were, how we reacted to the lockdown, how we faired once life was reinstated and how different the new life trajectory looked.

My personal experience of the coronavirus is foreshadowed by my health concerns. Facing a terminal diagnosis forced me to face some life truths earlier than I had anticipated. Eighteen months ago, I was a healthy and athletic 38-year-old mother of two when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Generally, medical experts cannot tell a patient how long a tumour has been in the brain, but in my case, it was clear, the tumour had been growing for years. By the time I was diagnosed it had infiltrated the most areas of the brain and had started causing silent seizures that resulted in persistent, short-term memory loss.

My initial diagnosis was terrifying, but there has also been some light, and in fact, some aspects of opportunity that I didn’t expect to find here. One of the key changes is that I have learnt to live in the present, without the expectation of what tomorrow will be like. ‘Rolling with change’ and trying to live in the present is something has helped me to limit my expectations from the results of scans and tests. Every two months I have an MRI to assess the activity of the tumour. Initially I would cling to the results of these scans. Has the tumour grown? Is it getting smaller? Is the treatment working? But I quickly learnt that no single result is good… or bad. Results are read against prior tests and MRIs are read with PET/FET results, so no single test tells the full story and tests don’t usually occur all at the same time. The focus on these results was obscuring my view of my entire life. 

Recently, Judith Lucy launched a new podcast called Overwhelmed and Dying. In a recent episode, she interviews David Leser, author of Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing. In exploring the feat of making a genuine connection with other people they discuss ‘gaining comfort in fluidity’. I found great comfort in this idea that life moves on – we don’t know what’s over the horizon, but that does not stop the time from passing. During the discussion, Leser references poet, David Wyatt, who writes about making friends with the horizon. I have found this to be incredibly grounding. We don’t know what’s beyond the horizon – both in a time of COVID-19 and in brain cancer. Julia Baird also addresses this in her new book Phosphorescence. When discussing how important it is to live in the present, she states that if we ‘accept impermanence, we are far more likely to live in the present and relish the beauty in front of us, and the infinite possibilities contained in every hour, or single breath’. 

Now, more than ever, we have less control over how the future looks, and this is going to cause everyone turmoil, but it might also serve as an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the present.

The world has changed. There is no question that there will be a heavy toll. Everyone will have their own, deeply personal losses, but unlike cancer, this is not a fight you have to face alone. There is no escaping the change that is being thrust upon us. But one thing I do know, is that unlike cancer, we can control how our individual actions impact the fight against the virus. By staying home and ensuring we are careful with personal interactions, each one of us can contribute to limiting the ultimate human toll the virus will have. We can arrest the strain on our health system and we can support the vulnerable. I know this will become tiring to hear, but because I have already lived through considerable loss and challenge, I implore you, please, please stay home. And for God’s sake, please put on some pants when logging into your Zoom calls!