The first time was 11 years prior, when the medical establishment discovered a fist-sized tumour bulging out the back of my left knee. Still on the soprano-side of puberty, I wasn’t really equipped to grapple with the enormity of my situation and the various existential dilemmas this sort of prognosis pitches up.
I experienced the year as a largely undifferentiated blur of awfulness – a value-neutral cycle of vomiting and discomfort that over time merged into a single unit of searing Sisyphean shittitude. Looking back at it now, it has the quality of a half-remembered dream, distant, as if it could have happened to any child with cancer.
The appearance of a similarly fist-sized bulge attached to the top of my right lung 11 years later was an altogether different state of affairs. The human this tumour was attached to had since passed through all the rites of puberty and teenage anomie to emerge out the other end a fairly standard issue young man. A young man whose primary points of difference from his 11-year-old self were: a) a new capacity to contemplate the conditions of his own mortality; and b) a fully functioning sex drive.
Much is often made of the link between sex and death, as if the presence of peril is all we really need to start bashing our genitals together with everything in sight. I can’t say I ever noticed the difference, but I could also appreciate that my predicament placed romance on a fragile pedestal; starting to date someone mid-chemo looked all too close to offering sex with death, a mood-killing combo if ever there was one.
Almost every cancer story I’d ever read or heard involved someone already well settled into a relationship, gifting the tale an automatic inbuilt emotional resonance – a journey that the two of them were embarking on together. But me? A perennially single 22-year-old with a fervid 22-year-old desire to get laid? This was a situation well and truly not in the cancer manual.
What would it mean to take a complete stranger and bundle them into the intimacies and terrors of having cancer on the first date? Do you even tell them and risk their changing the way they see you, or do you just pretend to be a performance art student who sees body hair as “a burden”? (For those of you wondering, yes, your pubic hair does fall out during chemotherapy. Silver linings, if you’re into that sort of thing).
A couple of months into my eight-month regime of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery I started dating a girl named Lucy. Now, dating is the sort of activity that, by its very nature, tends to be forward-looking.
The moment at which something transitions from idle sex into a full-blown relationship is usually the moment at which you begin to imagine a year, two years into the future and still see that person lying in your bed each morning.
The problem with dating while you have cancer is that half the time when you look a year or two into the future, you’re not lying in your bed anymore. Your life at that moment is more concerned with avoiding endings than searching for new beginnings.
Lucy was a few years older than me, pale-skinned, with punkily dyed, asymmetrical hair. Her eyes had a kind, almost sad cast to them, although I later discovered this was because of the permanent watering caused by her heavy, just-this-side-of-clinical-blindness contact lenses. She was tomboyish in attitude and fashion, a girl of quiet self-possession whose wry smile gave off the impression of being in on a joke that you haven’t quite worked out yet.
On the first date I took her to see a band called Explosions in the Sky, and at the end of the night she kissed me in the car. For the second date we watched a film at an outdoor cinema and drank a six-pack of Peroni. I told her Peroni reminded me of summer. Lucy said they tasted like sex. It wasn’t a come-on, but the way she said it made her sound devastatingly assured. We went home together. She understood enough not to ask about my illness. I think she recognised a man looking for escape when she saw him.
We got along fine, but I think from the moment we started dating we were both afflicted by the sense that we were counting down the days until it was time to break up. I was preoccupied with my health and had plans to leave the state as soon as I could. She was in the middle of a university degree and had locked herself into Perth for the foreseeable future.Nonetheless, we settled into a cosy pattern: wake up late in the morning, eat breakfast, I’d drive her to university, go to my radiotherapy appointment, and we’d meet up again that night and drink and talk until late. For me it was these small routines, these dispatches from a less complicated life, that left me feeling the most together.
At the end of May 2008, a couple of weeks before I finished my final round of chemo, she sat me down.
“Luke, this has been, um … great, but I think maybe we should leave it here.”
Having in my mind already departed for Melbourne, sans her, my relief must have been palpable.
“Yeah. That sounds about right. It has been … um … great.”
We were awkward, but sincere. It had been great, but it was over. It was hard to know what else to say. We kissed to fill the gap and both blinked back tears.
There was silence for a minute, then:
“Anyway, I think this might be me done with boys for a while.”
“Oh. You mean …?”
Looking back at the amount of The L Word we’d been watching, I feel like the warning signs were definitely there. I couldn’t really blame her for trying it out with me, though. I was perhaps the most short-term relationship participant you were ever going to find – one way or the other I was going to be out of the way in a few months. And, personally, at a time in my life when it was easy to feel transient, I’m just glad to have had such a decisive impact.
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