Anna Donald: When I wish I didn’t have cancer

Anna Donald I am lying in bed, propped up with a silly number of pillows. I’ve stolen my husband’s, who is spending the night in Taree, a small country town about four hours away, where he is arguing a case about termite control. I’ve always wondered how he knows so much about such an esoteric range of subjects. Now I’ve figured it out.

When you are a barrister and have to argue the ins and outs of your client’s business to a judge, often at short notice, you must quickly come to grips with that business, whether it be termite control, leaking petrol stations, dodgy forensic tests, the rights of refugees who have broken the law, or artists’ fees under new copyright laws.

I, on the other hand, am listening to my mad music collection, coughing quite a lot, and feeling very sad that we aren’t getting on a plane tomorrow morning for London.

We had return tickets which had to be used within 12 months. A combination of my husband’s workload coupled with my concern about the tolerable but persistent cough made us cancel them, even though we got nothing back for them – it was a cheap deal to start with, with no refunds or transfers allowed.

Even so, last night I found myself obsessively pulling out an unopened jigsaw of London and laying out the 1000 pieces in neat little piles as my grandmother showed me to do 38 years ago. If I can’t go to London then I’m jolly well going to reconstruct it. Not exactly the same thing, but comforting in an odd sort of way nonetheless. For ten years I lived in Bloomsbury. Central London was my backyard. I could stroll to Trafalgar Square, where, during the war, my great uncle was vicar at St Martins in the Fields, and all the surrounding areas. I came to know intimately the ins and outs of London’s ‘main drags’ as an Aussie might put it, including back street short cuts; little tunnels connecting streets full of piss and beer, and beautiful old houses wedged between concrete monstrosities. Central London is too pockmarked by war and inadequate planning to be beautiful but it was a fantastic place to live, despite the constant in-your-face noise and bustle. Although it was my backyard, it is, of course, the world’s backyard too. Sharing it with the world every morning was both invigorating and a constant struggle.

So, sitting in my quiet apartment in one of Sydney’s leafy suburbs, it was nice to know I can still recognise practically all the main buildings, suburbs, and landmarks – which meant that the jigsaw didn’t take long to complete (when he got home, my husband immediately joined in, not bothering to shed his suit).

To add salt to the wound, as it were, however, of cancelling our flight was yesterday’s arrival of our new niece to my brother and his wife at the Homerton hospital in Hackney (apparently fabulous for maternity services, according to my sister-in-law, who is American, and was astounded at the superiority of the NHS over the for-profit hospital in New York she attended for their first baby). Problem is, we won’t be there to see her or the baby (or my brother for that matter). Not for a while, anyway. The baby is absolutely beautiful (from my brother’s mobile phone picture, which he surreptitiously took, as the Homerton still has the insane rule that you can’t use a mobile on the wards, which UCH sensibly abandoned some time ago. It’s very hard on family members whose only contact is phone). I am so, so sad not to be flying tomorrow.

So I’m playing the Messiah as solace and trying to think of something to send my new niece that will tell her she was loved from birth, not just by her parents. We sent our first niece a silver christening cup with her name engraved in it. I know that such things more or less collect dust until adolescence is well and truly over, but later, when life has its ups and downs, they can be talismans, emitting a message of love that won’t go away, no matter what life throws at you. My beautiful old copy of Winnie-The-Pooh from my father on the day I was born is one such item.

This is when I really wish I didn’t have cancer. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me that much; sometimes I’m even grateful for the changes in my life it’s brought about. But when it’s an obstacle to doing things you really care about, it tests my meditative practice of non-attachment and trust-in-the-Divine to the limit. I want to shake God and say hey, what about this cough then? Can’t you just get rid of it for a couple of weeks so I can see my new little niece? What’s wrong with you?

I don’t do this because, once you’ve got a line to the awesome divinity that I dimly and occasionally clearly perceive much of the time now, I know it’s all OK anyway. Yelling about what is not won’t help. And anyway I’m not really mad at anyone. Just frustrated.

I had better go to bed as it is well past midnight but a word of advice – try not to get cancer. If you smoke, just stop. Do what you have to – hang upside on the banister, dress up in your wife’s clothes, try ceramics. And there’s always nicotine patches. Whatever it takes. Having lungs full of cancer is a complete pest. Don’t go there. No need.

And have a great week.

Anna Donald, Blog 18, 17 September

  • Emma

    Dear Anna

    I have very belatedly just come across this blog for the first time and wanted to say hello from your old colleagues at HSJ. So sorry you are not getting the chance to come to London but glad you are enjoying being back in your neighbourhood.

    All the very best

    Emma and everyone at HSJ

  • Mai Luen

    Thinking of you and BIIIIIIIGGGGGGG CONGRATS to Tom…as with your copy of Winnie-The-Pooh, I am sure the little one couldn’t ask for a better announcement to the world of her arrival.

    Take care

  • justin

    Congratulations on your neice , pass my best wishes to Tom.The good thing about London, I have found after living abroad, is how little it really changes no matter which buildings rise or fall nor which financial crisis the world is enduring.

    Bets regards

    Justin J

  • Criostoir O’Cleireachain

    Hey Anna,
    Just anted to say hi. My name is obviously somewhat Irish, but I live in the States so don’t worry about how to pronounce it. I just go by Chris. I know you have no clue about who I am but I ran across this blog and wanted to tell you to hang in there. You sound tougher than most. I would know. I just took care of my mother the last 3 years until she died 2 months ago. Cancer of course. During the last months I kind of had the whole God connection, now not so sure.

    I am sorry about the trip,however, that sucks. If it makes you feel any better, I used to live on the East Coast, out in Boston. You not missing anything. People are annoying. Trust me, 2/3 through this blog and I have proved that one.

    So tell you what, when you just ready to snap, (at any time) you feel free to yell at me, most woman do anyway so don’t worry. Good news is I will be home cause I lazy.

    Down side is, that there might already be someone yelling at me when its your turn. Just type in caps I can drown out whoever the other one is that day.

    So anyway, you can yell at me, and I will take it up to God and keep you clean. I good, he will never know who gave me all those things to say. Sound fair?

    Besides, like your husband, I am also a Barrister, well the american equivalent. Same thing we just have a less respect from the usual folks; Judges, the public, family. And very little self respect for ourselves. Which if you have met any American Attorneys, you are at this point wondering how could that be true; followed by you wondering how I could you have any self respect left at all? Ok you got me. All things considered law seems to have worked well eh?

    Thats a good question. I get around it by not practicing law. Spend most my time using the expensive waste of an education being an undercover cop doing narcotics work. It more fun than being in an office and this way I don’t have to keep looking for a lower paying job. A police officer in America, Trust me I found bottom dollar for my degree.

    I try to stay up beat about it though. I mean gotta look at the bright side. I get up in the morning and remind myself that “I may be slow, but at least I do poor work; and have the maturity of a carrot.” It’s a good size carrot, no worries.

    Anyway, though I don’t practice law much, I always do it for family and friends. So, you have a bad day I will represent you and yell at God “Pro Bono”. I not too worried he already holds me in enough contempt I can say whatever by now.

    Well with any luck I got you to smile at least once, even just a little. Just saying stupid stuff will usually snag a grin off someone. Even if they hit me right afterwards, at least I get that grin.

    You hang in there and don’t you dare stop fighting. THAT ONE I MEAN. Otherwise, I will fly my Irish self down there and just bug you to you agree. You already deal with one Barrister. Image having a second one but Irish, American and with nothing better to do than talk and annoy you. I’d threaten more than just annoying but truth is. I’M A PUSSY

    Then again, you would have a fair target to strangle I s’pose.

    Talk to ya latter Anna

  • dear anna,
    tell your brother to take lots of videos of your neice.they look remarkably cute doing nothing!
    i read your blog every so often and find it amazing. i’m waiting for my husband’s biopsy result as i write this-the blog is especially poignant right now.where do you find the strength to keep going?
    do play the kings of leon song ‘sex on fire'(i know, weird title) as loud as you can today. it makes you happy somehow.
    hope the sun’s shining in sydney. here in england its gray and chilly.

  • Anna Donald

    Wow these are lovely replies. Thanks very much everyone. Will listen to Kings of Leon. And yes, cancer in loved ones takes a lot of courage and strength. I’m really relieved I’m the one with cancer – truly I think it’s easier. Carers get pretty short shrift by ‘the system’ yet it’s they who, I think, suffer most. I really wish I could go to Ireland – not just due to my flaming red hair (all gone of couurse) and overall Celtic looks but becuase it sounds like a place I’d love – funny, mad, beautiful. A bit like how I’d like to be myself but have been too ambitious and conservative to truly dare. Am a big fan of the Pogues. Still, an Irish registrat in Glasgow once called me ‘a chancer’ and I took that, from him, as a compliment. I think I am a bit of a chancer which is maybe why I’m still alive. Would still like to get to Dublin though. 🙂 Anna

  • James Woodcock

    Dear Anna,

    After not being in touch for ages I have been reading your blogs and found them both enjoyable and moving, so thought I say hello. I know people are keen to read how you are doing, and encouraged by your writing.

    Glad to hear about your niece, will be thinking of them and you as I cycle from Bloomsbury past the Homerton on my way home later today. Shame you are not able to make it to London and I hope your cough improves.

    Best wishes,

  • Dearest Anna,

    Congratulations on the birth of your new little neice! What happy news.
    I am sorry that we won’t be seeing you here in London, but am so looking forward to seeeing you when I am in Sydney in January.

    Thinking of you.

    With all my love,

  • Luis Gabriel Cuervo

    Hi Anna,

    Congratulations on your nice; She must be adorable!

    I was touched by the nostalgia your description brings of quaint London.

    We were (pleasantly) surprised recently when an airline allowed us to change some cheap ticket from Colombia because of a relatives health situation that complicated travel; they did ask for a medical certificate, but once it was produced, they were quite considerate and flexible.
    Just wondering if that would be of any use to you.

    Well, I gotta go, now! I got a lot of bouncing to do! Ta ta for now!

    Warm regards,

    Luis Gabriel

  • Andrew

    Dear Anna,
    I came across your blog looking for information on which are the best drug companies to buy as an investment. I had just
    returned from the STOP & SHOP our supermarket here in the US
    were I just bought a pack of Marlboro Menthol 100 LIGHTS. I am coughing and know how bad I need to quit.
    I lived in North Sydney about 15 years ago. I am agnostic, but the older I get the more I question. Please know that
    someone in the US is praying for you.

  • Dear Anna, When I was in the throes of Hodgkin’s and weakness, that ‘line to the awesome divinity’ you mention, was the beginning of a new life and healing into life. I’d meditated (Vipassana) for years before the cancer diagnosis but when in the throes of the cancer, I no longer did a formal meditation practice because the divinity seemed to throw me a direct line. I just ‘held to that’ and, lo! recovered in body and spirit.
    Metta, Vivian

  • Sam

    Hi Anna

    Real shame that you could not make your trip to London. Having moved just a wee bit further than you from London, whenever I feel nostalgic, I just hit YouTube. Amidst the dross, there are some wonderful vignettes of all parts of the city,and you remember what a fantastic city it is. Won’t work for your new niece – but skype video really helps.

    Sam xx

  • Your old friend, Ed Flood

    Dear Anna: How can this be. I remember so fondly you at Harvard, such an unusual combination of utter brilliance of mind & radiance of soul, a true stand-out. Not hyperbole, but the truth. Cheery, interested, and never-ceasing to be interesting. You were such a welcomed respite from the never-ending but always stimulating tasks associated with Shirley’s world. Congrats to Tom on his new arrival, and regards to Michael: I recall you talked about them both with great affection. I’m working now as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., with my wife, Kathy, and two active children. I still hope to meet up with you in London someday when you become Health Minister -I know, more my aspiration for you than your’s — I have always said that Parliament (and, clearly, so many) needs you.

  • Paul

    Hi Anna
    I read your blog and wanted to say hello .It would be good to have something profound/witty /amusing/life enhancing to say .But I haven’t .Too late at night and on second (or possibly third , can’t remember) glass of red .
    I’ve never lived in London but it was great when I was down there 2 weeks ago depositing my daughter in the Ymca at the start of her course. I’m very jealous of her!
    I even had lunch in the crypt of your great uncle’s church!
    Keep on smiling ,as in your pic .
    Hang on in there.I will have words with God about you .
    God Bless

  • Maureen

    Hi Anna,
    the irish connection has finally tipped me over the edge into joining in your blog. i have been appreciating you over the past 9 months, identifying with much of the stuff you write about and being inspired and encouraged like so many of your other readers. i really liked the “elephant sitting on you” description of chemo! most accurate i have come across, and when it makes you smile that also helps.I also agree completely that all this nonsense is much much harder on the spouse /partner.
    can i pass on a saying i have inherited from a friend and i have to say concur with deeply!- LISGIG-“life is shit but God is good”.
    thinking of you, from not so sunny belfast,

  • Michae Anderson

    Hi Anna — Great to hear the FABULOUS news about Tom & Roje having a new baby. I can’t think of a better blessing for them.
    We are also thinking of London with some nostalgia from our new home in New Delhi. The jigsaw is a really good idea — it is amazing how quickly the names fade from memory . . . I’m really sorry to hear that the cough is getting in the way of travel.
    I am in the midst of pushing evidence-based development programming in the aid community in India. Your ideas and approaches get used every week here, and your name is regularly invoked . . .

    Lots of love, Michael Anderson

  • ian reeves

    Anna – that you used to think amazingly, and write those thoughts in a way normal people could understand impressed me immeasurably when we first met.

    That you can still do this defies belief, but i guess if i had to think of one person who would write an extraordinary blog in response to brain mets, it would be you!

    I love the “chancer” reflection from Glasgow, where a small corner of GRI still remembers you, and always will.

    Are you sure you got the accent right and it wasn’t “dancer” ? – I’m now fluent in weegie, and i think he may have said, “Ya Dancer”, in traditional weegie (i.e without pronouncing any consonants), which sounds a bit like “chancer” to the untrained southern/Oz ear.


  • Hello Anna, we haven’t heard from you for awhile.This isn’t a pressure to write a blog, it’s a query with care. Are you OK? This cancer thing is dreadful and those of us who know-too-much are hoping you are well. Metta, Vivian

  • Karen Y

    Dear Anna, So lovely to read your blog – sorry I’ve been a bit out of the loop the last wee while. Hearty congrats on the arrival of another niece – I am so sorry that you weren’t able to use those return tickets to London. Can you believe that it was an entire year ago when you left the UK? In fact, it was my first wedding anniversary last month, and you gave one of the readings, and looked wonderful despite living in the shadow. And one year on you are doing sooooo much better than you had feared. I’m six months pregnant now and feeling like a beached whale, although apparently the bump is fairly small given its age. What an extraordinary mystery life is – I still can’t get my head around it. Will try and ring you soon. lots of love,