You would think that life changing experiences were potentially defined by their rarity. By a stand out quality or uniqueness that makes them exquisite and precious by virtue of them being one of a kind. An experience for you alone.
Yet despite having travelled the world and seen many great marvels, stroked lions, hiked volcanos, dived wrecks, volunteered in Kenya, I fear my most life changing experience is terrifyingly prosaic and tragically common.
It starts with a young man with dark hair and brown eyes. I recall he was South African, attractive, mid-thirties, but his name eludes me. He knelt by my bedside, put his warm, heavy hand on my arm and uttered the words that shattered my world.
"I'm sorry. It's not good news. Your scan shows a mass in the bowel, possibly a tumour. Your bowel is fully obstructed which explains the abdominal pain. We need to get you into surgery immediately. We are worried your bowel might rupture."
Statements like: 'But I'm only 34', 'But I eat healthily', 'But I exercise regularly', sprung like cartoon thought bubbles from my head but remained unuttered.
I mumbled "OK" to signify that I had heard and understood.
He continued, "I'm sorry but you will wake up with a stoma. A colostomy bag. We won't know until we operate whether it'll be reversible or not, nor what we will find."
Again I mumbled "OK."
I'm not even sure that any thought bubbles popped up at that point. Time was frozen and my mind was numb. I had no questions or comments for him, simply my signature on the outstretched clipboard.
The wait for surgery was mercifully short. Minutes not hours. The world contracted to a small fabric cubicle containing my husband and I. No time to think, or worry, or process. Just tears, caresses and vague reassurances that all would be well. Someday.
Since then much has happened.
My recovery was tough, as it is from all major surgery. My diagnosis two weeks later was bowel cancer, Stage Three.
Cancer. That weighted and leaden word. Increasingly ubiquitous in its reach yet individual and personal in its impact on human lives.
Worlds are shredded by the news and the shock, and then bodies and minds are shattered by the treatment, whatever toxic combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy that may be.
For me it has been chemotherapy. Twelve sessions, occurring fortnightly. Session Four is due next week. A powerful shock to the system followed by a brief reprieve before further jolts as my immune system lurches downhill taking malignant cells with it.
But mine is not the worse kind of chemotherapy in terms of strength of poison. For the sake of my young children I am thankful that (for now) I still have hair on my head. It means less questions.
Of course the seemingly unending nausea is grim, the fatigue is extensive, and depression and self-pity become hard to fight at the nadir of the drugs' effect.
But just like the clichéd cloud with its inevitable silver lining, the cornucopia of plenty materialises, overflowing with the generosity of human spirit and offering life-altering and life-enhancing succour.
The tidal wave of support and love that rose up on dissemination of my unwelcome 'news' threatened to overwhelm my emotions with its force and magnitude. Family, friends and even former foes have kept me afloat with both practical support like childcare and meals, and psychological assistance. At the points when my body and mind have faltered, where the ocean of despair has beckoned and threatened to drag me into its deep, dark crevasses, a proverbial life raft has appeared each time to save me from myself. Like an emotional buoyancy aid kind words and messages have lifted my spirit and soul.
"Keep fighting" they say.
"You can do this."
In the face of such optimism and positivity what can you do but cling on? Ride through the choppy waves and welcome the calmer waters that finally appear once each batch of cytotoxic pharmaceuticals has cleared from my system.
And so whilst my experience may initially appear depressing, as others before me will have experienced and doubtless expressed, it is often in the darkest times that the light of humanity shines brightest.
This light has always been there, yet our hectic, overfilled modern lives, dominated by the pressures of work, money, family and more serve to muffle its glow. We get caught up in the hurly-burly of things that need to be done, the lists we have to work through, the projects to be delivered and achieved. We prioritise the wrong things and forget to take time out for what is really important, the human relationships that make life meaningful.
We fail to perceive the light of humanity, to appreciate it and nurture it both for ourselves and others. Yet it is there, and for me it took a cancer diagnosis to see it shining and to understand its importance.
So whilst I clearly would rather not be where I am, experiencing what I am, and I occasionally allow myself the luxury of wondering what would happen if I could turn back time... yet I am grateful.
Life will never be the same again. I am living with cancer and living through chemotherapy. Life before cancer is gone, but life, hopefully one day, after cancer shows immense potential.
The spirit of humanity burns bright, in me and around me, colouring all my future choices. Its warm flame adjusts priorities and changes perspectives and for all of that, I am profoundly grateful.Suggest a correction