During the early weeks of my cancer treatment, John and I decided that it was time for our sons to start making their own school lunches.They were aged 8 and 10 at that stage, and this seemed to be one task that they could easily lift from John's full-time-working, suddenly-solo-parenting shoulders. On a visit to Darwin between chemotherapy treatments I drew up a list of foods sorted into food groups, with suggestions about how to include a healthy variety of choices in each day's lunch, and stuck it on the fridge. After two evenings of coaching the lads were able to complete the task independently, and seemed keen to continue doing so. They headed off each morning with delightful, nutritious meals in their backpacks, and I felt pleased to have eased John's daily load just a little before returning 'Down South'.
When I came back at the end of treatment, the novelty had worn off and my fridge chart was nowhere to be seen. The boys were well used to making their lunches, but now liked to do it as their last task before walking to school rather than the evening beforehand. Heartwarming food combinations (hardboiled eggs! tins of tuna! baked beans! carrots! cherry tomatoes!) had given way to the most basic. But I felt little urge to intervene. Watching Francis throw three Vegemite sandwiches (on wholemeal bread, at least) and a token banana into his lunch box last Friday, I found myself thinking, "Oh well, a Vegemite sandwich and a piece of fruit was my standard lunch, and I..."
Turned out OK. That was the end of the phrase that shuddered to a halt in my mind.
A particularly challenging aspect of serious illness is the way that it can shatter your self-image. I had always taken my physical robustness for granted. I took a generally sensible (though pretty relaxed) approach to eating and exercise, and most definitely regarded myself as healthy. But being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 41 unequivocally does not involve 'turning out OK.'
I have never asked "why me?", in the sense of wondering why I was 'chosen' to get breast cancer. I don't believe I was chosen, in any metaphysical sense. How horrifying for me to think otherwise, after all. But I have wondered why I got breast cancer in the sense of wanting to know what factors contributed to its development. If I could spread the word, clue other women in to my mistakes, explain why I didn't (despite all previous appearances to the contrary) 'turn out OK", then at least I could feel that something useful could result from this horrible turn of events. I'm sure Vegemite sandwiches were blameless, but what about my early menarche? Enjoyment of a drink? Decade on the Pill? Guilty enthusiasm for Diet Coke? My history was very ordinary and shared with countless women who (thankfully) will never develop breast cancer. My doctors just say I was unlucky.I long for more research into the causes of this cancer. But for the moment, perhaps a fuller appreciation of the degree to which our fortunes are governed by dumb, fragile luck is one of the few 'lessons' I can draw from all this. And that seems less appetising than the contents of the dreariest lunch box.