In war movies, when a soldier is told that he’s been granted leave in a few days’ time, the audience just knows that he is doomed. Starting a blog after finishing active treatment for cancer feels a bit like writing an equivalent scene into your own life. You can see how it will unfold. Presumptuous talk of 'remission' will irritate the gods, the cancer will metastasize and your blog will become a series of meditations on your impending death (which you will feel beholden to make inspirational). Aha! you think - perhaps expressing these fears in a light-hearted, self-aware introductory paragraph will appease the evil eye! But as the sentences unfold you realise that all you’ve done is raise the irony stakes, and that the blog is now all but guaranteed to end with your untimely demise.
Spiralling, irrational thoughts like this have plagued me since the day I found a lump in my breast. I have feared that my most private thoughts will ‘tempt fate’ and attract death my way. I have been afraid to read news stories about deaths from breast cancer, lest this somehow make my own death more likely. I have been overwhelmed by a compulsion to wear ‘lucky necklaces’. As for omens, they seem to be everywhere – and, by their very nature, entirely lacking in subtlety. As I arrived at the radiography desk for the initial ultrasound to examine my lump, a woman who was covering her bald head with a red beret came and stood next to me. "Is this...a sign?" I wondered. The next day, awaiting the scan result, I visited a friend in a different part of the hospital – and the same woman, still in the beret, walked into the foyer. At that moment, I felt that I knew I had cancer. Many months later, when my plane began descent to Darwin Airport as I headed home after finishing active treatment, a goddamn rainbow burst through the clouds. I made a silent toast with the last of my $7 airline Shiraz, because – obviously! – everything was now going to be OK.
My rational self knows that starting a blog, seeing a woman in a beret or viewing a rainbow will have absolutely no bearing upon how my illness unfolds. As well as being completely detached from reality, these thoughts often make me feel guilty. They seem disrespectful of the people whose cancer blogs have ended in death; of the famous breast cancer sufferers whose obituaries I’ve avoided; of the woman in the beret – by regarding them as nothing more than ‘signs’ directed at me. This feels like the worst kind of solipsism. Believing that the universe would conjure up a rainbow purely for my benefit is, at least, harmlessly nutty.
But there is a bewilderingly narrow dividing line between magical thinking and the kind of ‘positive thinking’ that people exhort you to engage in when you’re diagnosed with cancer. Both involve the notion that thoughts influence outcomes. Is there really much difference between thinking (a) that seeing a rainbow means everything will be OK, and (b) that thinking "Everything will be OK!" means everything will be OK? Is the former really any nuttier than the latter?
I’ve read that people who let themselves indulge in a modicum of magical thinking are less prone to depression. I wonder if I should treat ‘good omens’ and ‘lucky necklaces’ like bubble baths of the soul, knowing that even though they won’t influence my chances, they can a least help me feel a bit better for a while. Can I enjoy these things in the way that a twelve-year old enjoys laying out a stocking for Santa, drawing pleasure and comfort from a nod to the magical despite the lack of any deeper belief? Perhaps it is OK for me to embrace these things while simultaneously (and inconsistently) refusing to acknowledge ‘bad omens’, and assuring myself that writing on a blog about cancer does not involve scripting my own death. But ultimately, I need to make peace with the knowledge that there is no supernatural torch spotlighting ‘signs’ on the dark path ahead, and forge on, guided only by my wits, until my eyes adjust to the light.