The upbeat, real-life story of The Wise writer Funda Altincekic Aysel, who beat cancer twice. This story could change the way you look at cancer.
Cancer: The Breakdown of Unity
There’s something special I would like to share with all my loved ones. It’s so special to me because it’s been going on for a while between Funda and me. At first, I thought everything that was happening was related to Funda, but as time passed, the issue went beyond Funda. I don’t remember at which point I got involved with the issue, but now I can, more or less, figure out why I’m involved with it. If it was down to Funda, this issue would have been left unspoken without sharing any details, whereas I think and feel differently about the matter. I can see Funda has been going through something that’s not just specific to her, because everything we experience should be regarded as part of the collective creation. Individual attitudes toward the subject have a big role in shaping the potential. If I’m not mistaken, the residual knowledge from our experiences can be highly valuable.
Do we have the right to keep this sort of information hidden within ourselves? Although it took us seven years, I’m glad to say that Funda and I are of the same mind now, so we now choose to share this knowledge with others. We hope this story, which is narrated by me in parts and by Funda in others, will get to those who can benefit most from it.
In 2007, an unimaginable surprise came to me when two words were mentioned in the same sentence: cancer and Funda. In fact, I always thought I’d die from a heart attack or something similar, because it runs in our family. Where did the cancer come from? I thought cancer only affected sentimental, worrisome, and pessimistic people, just like tuberculosis. As part of a generation that grew up watching old Turkish films, I was quite familiar with this picture. However, a person like me, who has great enthusiasm and enjoys living a lot, should have nothing to do with cancer. Had I been fooling myself all these years? Someone was telling us a huge lie somewhere. Either I was a part of this lie, or cancer doesn’t choose certain personalities. Maybe both possibilities are true.
This basic question has been in my head for years. It’s just a fancy way of asking, “Why me?” I’ve had some very quick answers to other questions in life, so why couldn’t I find an answer to this one? As my bond with the cancer improved, I understood why my question was not so easy to answer. I think I can explain it in a simple way, so here we go.
Our bodies are extraordinary machines comprised of numerous pieces that work together in a coordinated, compatible, and balanced way. This structure is what makes our bodies so extraordinary, such as how those numerous systems work toward a single holistic aim: to protect the unity of the body. Cancer, meanwhile, takes hold when some of the body’s cells forgo this unity and decide to reproduce excessively. The immune system of a balanced body deals with these rouge cells on a daily basis by terminating them, but when the malfunction goes beyond the immune system and threatens the body’s unity, cancer enters the stage. Therefore, cancer develops when the unity of the body comes under threat.
But what is a body? It’s not just a piece of meat. On the contrary, it has so many valuable qualities. I can feel things, have emotions, think about matters, and so on. I can design and create useful and beautiful objects. All these things certainly occur in my body, and they affect the body in a cellular manner and vice versa. This interactive network makes the body more complex and sophisticated than we actually thought. Therefore, when we refer to the body, we actually mean a sort of unity. On one hand, it’s something made from secret ingredients, and it takes place completely inside me. On the other hand, it’s something that can be observed, one way or another. For this reason, it’s extremely hard to identify the exact source of the malfunction that’s threatening someone’s unity. I am not saying this to muddy the waters. On the contrary, I’m trying to say that we need to make our perceptions as complex as the body itself, because the question of “Why me?” deserves this effort.
While looking for answers, the most difficult part for me was establishing this new perception. My previous perception believed something needed to be blamed for getting cancer. After all, why would Funda, a person full of life and energy, want to die? Something out of my control must be causing it, and if it threatens my life, it must be at fault.
Anything I’ve eaten, drunk, breathed in, or put on my face as make up could have been responsible. Yes, that’s right, but it doesn’t explain how cancer differs from person to person. Sure, some external toxins have the potential to cause cancer, but why does the response to these toxins vary from person to person? If two people live in the same environment, but one person has cancer and the other doesn’t, it must be a very complicated situation. Once I realized this, I started looking inside myself for the guilty party. All my identities, beliefs, and thoughts, basically all the established patterns I’ve meticulously created and worked hard to maintain over the past 46 years were awaiting me now. After spending much time searching for the cause, both inside and out, and after forming a closer relationship with cancer, I eventually realized that just trying to assign blame was not sufficient to explain cancer. Once I changed my perception, my approach to the question of “Why me?” also shifted. Now I walk on the path of awareness. The terrain on this path is quite hard, but it’s more educational.
My cancer showed me many things about life and myself. I could have learned these in a less painful way of course, but I must have failed at some point, so it came to help me. I also now understand that when I reach a certain level of clarity, it will go away, leaving this story behind.
Part 1: What? I Have Cancer?
It’s the autumn of 2007 in Izmir, Turkey. Summer’s chaotic days are over, and the city is back in its normal routine. It’s time now to wear warm sweaters and sleep under blankets. My college will be open again soon. I love my college, I’ve been there for 27 years if I count my student years. I can feel its trees, stones, and scent in all my cells. After all these years, why do I feel the same excitement at the start of each term? I don’t know, but there are brilliant new faces and hearts, brand new ideas, shared thoughts, and new things to learn. All these things allow my existence to stay in the present. I think this is why, and this autumn is about to begin just like every other autumn. Why would it be any different?
In fact, the summer before had been quite troublesome for me, so I was a bit worried. I didn’t make a big fuss about the swelling I noticed in my lower abdomen, but I wasn’t pleased with it either. I thought I would get over it, because I was as healthy as a horse. Plus, I’ve always hated hospitals, sickness, and doctors due to my experiences during my mother’s illnesses. That’s why I try not to talk about the subject unless I need to. My mother was quite a complex patient with various illnesses, and doctors struggled to find a suitable treatment for her health problems. Every one of her health predicaments became my problem as well. In order to overcome these problems, which were unfamiliar to me, I had to research a lot myself. I did what I could. My husband had also gone through bypass surgery very recently, so I’d been through the same process again. As someone who always tries to avoid the trinity of sickness, hospitals, and doctors, I was very determined not to go through the same cycle again. I can’t completely escape it, however, because my husband is a doctor.
That summer, I self-diagnosed myself with indigestion, and I was quite happy with this diagnosis. Treating it with probiotic yoghurt didn’t seem to work, however. As my consumption of yoghurt and the swelling grew with equal pace, my husband Inan noticed the problem. He knew I wouldn’t want to see a doctor, so he said, “Let’s check it with an ultrasound test.” He convinced me to have it done at the hospital where he worked.
We arrived at the hospital after a light conversation about the issue on the way. I lay down on the ultrasound table, and the equipment started to observe my tummy. I tried to interpret the ultrasound’s output by looking for reactions on my husband’s face, as well as the doctor’s. The doctor looked quite nervous. Before shutting down the ultrasound machine, the doctor advised me to see a gynecologist as soon as possible. I wondered what that would mean.
I hadn’t seen a gynecologist in ages, not since my daughter’s birth. The only gynecologist I knew was my mother’s doctor, who had delivered my lovely daughter. I therefore needed to find a new one. I remembered the name of a doctor whom everybody in our department talked about with respect, so I booked an appointment with him for the next day. At that moment, I realized this autumn was not going to be like the autumns of the past.
We set off early in the morning without any significant conversation in the car. The doctor was already waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. I liked this serious-looking man with his smiling eyes. He listened to our whole story, and then I was taken into the ultrasound room. The ultrasound machine stood in the corner with a lousy stool in front and a bed beside it. The room had very unpleasant lighting because there was no window, and the walls were empty. I lay down in this sloppy place with no sense of joy to it and started watching the equipment as it gracefully uncovered the secret knowledge inside my body.
My doctor explained, one by one, the things I’d been going through. The size of the lump was approximately a third of an inch with a half-inch diameter. Around the lump, there was quite a lot of vascularization, which increases the risk. It could be an infection or a cancerous tissue…blah, blah, blah. So, I understood that I had a lump, but what’s the next step? I was all ears. I was then asked to give blood sample as well. Roger that! Just let me out of this room! I need to smoke! I heard everything you said, doctor! Now let me out!
We decided to spend our time waiting on the hospital’s terrace. It was a cloudy day. We sipped our coffees under dark clouds that would shortly bring rain. I wondered how I should live at that moment? Was I supposed to cry? I wasn’t in the mood for that. Should I keep quiet instead? Should I try to read my husband’s mind through his eyes? I thought it is was a bit early to start praying. Okay, I decided I should take a deep breath and drink my coffee. What was I supposed to do with this blasted news?
The word “lump” never sounds good. It has negative connotations. Yet something inside me was saying, “Everything will be fine, Funda.” Who was that?
Just as I was muttering, I saw something on the wall. It was a big dragonfly flying around on its own, as if it was performing a special autumn dance. Oh God! I had run after dragonflies all summer just to take a simple photo, now one was right here in front of me. After long years of reading, experiencing, and observing, I have become more perceptive about the coincidences in life. I managed to find out what some of them meant, and I probably missed the meaning of many others. However, I was determined not to miss this one. The voice inside me and the dragonfly were now bonded in my hands, whether they liked it or not. For the first time, I was ready to expect anything.
The blood results came after a while and the subject gained a new angle. The white blood cell count was too high, so there was possibly an infection. The diagnosis of being cancer and/or an infection made our situation even more complicated. At this point, the treatment I was going to get took shape pretty quickly. I was to stay in the hospital for a while and get a course of serious antibiotics. Depending on the result, I would either just have the antibiotics treatment or the lump would need to be removed.
The autumn evening came with all its gloominess as we pensively set off for home. The most worrying part of the whole story was the stay in hospital. What was I supposed to tell my only daughter, who was just a high school student? What could I hold onto during this uncertain process? There was just a dragonfly and a voice. How could I explain this to people? Who would believe me? Thankfully, I was not alone. We have a large family with a cat and a dog and many close friends. I was sure everybody would support each other.
I would be on my own in the hospital, so it was good that I enjoyed my own company. The nature of the treatment also wouldn’t require any serious medical attention. However, I knew what was going to get to me in there. It wasn’t going to be the antibiotics or loneliness. I was going to suffer from not being able to smoke!
After completing the necessary preparations, I checked into the hospital. My room was nice, spacious, light, and airy. I could see the Balcova hills, the hospital grounds with its trees, and the cafeteria through the window. Unless you’re extremely patient, passing the time is the most challenging part of a hospital stay. The days and nights can never go quickly enough. In the past, when I came here, I would get a cup of tea or coffee and go out to the balcony where smoking was allowed. I used to watch the skies and the birds flying over the field ahead. Each bird would perform a spectacular show by diving, doing an inward somersault, or ascending to a height very fast. I not only watched them—I also flew with them. My love for birds first began on this balcony, as well as my first poems about birds. Here’s one of them:
Birds, I’m sorry
I didn’t listen to your tweets for a long time
Nor your flaps…
But you didn’t poop on my windows either!
Time made me mad by stretching and contracting during the day, so I would stay on the balcony at those precise moments. If I was lucky enough to catch the solitude of the sunrise or the sunset, I felt myself in an extraordinary environment. Yet I was there as a patient now. Besides my birds, I had my books, my laptop, and my camera. I could sneak out between antibiotic sessions to take photos. The books and laptop would also keep me busy the rest of the time.
Life in the hospital started as I expected. Antibiotics were sent through my veins in the morning and afternoon. There were routine checks by young junior doctors now and then, sometimes enthusiastic ones, sometimes not. The nurses injected medicine into me kindly sometimes, harshly at others. For lunch and dinner, tasteless hospital food was served in those familiar plastic trays with five small compartments. There was the excitement of visiting time in the day and the long, silent nights. It went like it does when you’re doing something with absolutely no passion or fun. Occasionally and thankfully, this usual routine fell apart. It happened when I caught the glow in someone’s eyes. I felt hugely blessed that those moments existed.
Maybe it’s because I turned my smoking trips into moments of refuge. I hardly ever went to my room. I was either in the garden taking photos or in the cafe sipping Turkish coffee. If you’re willing enough, hospitals can be extraordinary places in which to observe and learn many things. There are patients and their families, paramedics, service staff, visitors, various salespeople, and so on. All together, we are like actors portraying tragic events over a period of time and making a comedy out of them.
My doctor sometimes sent me a message when I wasn’t in the room. “Where are you?” he would ask, “We need to get the ultrasound done.” I would then hurriedly return to my room. I was so compliant when waiting to see what would happen to me. This attitude made it easier to surrender peacefully.
The most critical time of day concerning my condition was the evenings. They would observe the effectiveness of the antibiotics by checking the test results, which arrived in the evening. We looked forward to getting the test results. As time went by, we came to understand that the white blood cell count had dropped, but according to the ultrasound, the lump had not shrunk at all. This was unpleasant news. I knew it was cancer rather than an infection, although nobody had openly said it yet.
I’m not sure whether it’s because of my time at the hospital, but I didn’t feel panicky. Although I wasn’t pleased with the results, I calmly listened to them every evening. Eventually, everything I gathered over the last six weeks concluded as follows:
Diagnosis: Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer
In many cases, any news is better than uncertainty. I felt better after hearing the diagnosis. Waiting for the damn test results every evening, comparing them with previous results, expecting big things from subtle differences, and repeating this cycle every single evening had made me so tired. Therefore, I preferred any diagnosis to no diagnosis. The uncertainty had gone, and everything became clearer. All I needed to do was accept the fact.
I know all of us negotiate with God every now and then. I also had a similar intention when I asked God not to take me before my daughter grew up and became independent. It doesn’t matter if it will be cancer or something else, if our terms are still valid, there must be a note somewhere that says, “Funda has more time to spend on earth. Don’t take her until further notice.” I would like to believe in this as much as I believe in my inner voice and the dragonfly in my heart, and I will do so. For everything else, all I need to do is say, “There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll wait and see what fate brings.”
Before surgery, I was told the lump, my ovaries, and my womb would be removed. I didn’t ask any further questions about the operation, such as the possible risks or predicted outcome, because I knew I would worry more if I knew the details. I wasn’t going to carry any more worries at that stage. I knew that ignorance was bliss. Being aware of this cosmic humor, I was content with what I knew and didn’t investigate any further.
Later, after having a successful operation and being told that everything was on track, my husband made a confession. Yes, the lump, my ovaries, and my womb had been removed, but that wasn’t all.
They hadn’t told me they were going to check the lymph nodes on the aorta during the operation, and if necessary, they would remove them as well. They told my husband this instead. I couldn’t stop thinking about this. I could have died if the aorta had been lacerated. This type of surgery is very risky, crazy in fact, so some “crazy” surgeon must have joined the surgical team and removed 21 of my lymph nodes.
If I had known all about the surgery’s process, risks, and possible outcomes, would have I been able to stay calm and peaceful? I don’t think so. The information would have confused my mind, made me mistrustful, and stopped me from surrendering myself peacefully to the surgeons. On the other hand, if the operation had failed, my right to know the truth would have been taken away from me. Who would be responsible for that? As a person who still lives, I think I was very fortune not to have been told every detail at the time, because my mind wasn’t clear enough to handle it. I am very lucky to have a husband and friend who could carry this heavy responsibility on my behalf. However, I still have some questions about the worst possibility.
In the loops of our lives, we make quick decisions on a knife’s edge, sometimes based on our absolute beliefs, sometimes based on our doubts that lack proof. This mechanism operates both mentally and physically, even in our cells. It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of these attitudes in our lives, but we have intuitions and observations that can verify this effect. My cells and my mind made me choose to believe in the pact I’d made with God, my life energy, my inner voice, the dragonfly, and my doctors. All these factors helped me not to affirm the possible negative outcomes of what I went through. Of course, it could have been the opposite. I don’t know.
The night before the operation, I went to bed and repeatedly affirmed that I would be treated gently and respectfully, and everything was happening to make me well again. I had a quiet night.
My only regret was that I hadn’t taken better care of the organs that were going to be removed soon. There was no excuse for it, but maybe I could correct this in the long run.
In the morning before surgery, they made me wear a blue hospital gown and a cap. My file sat on my body as I was taken to the OR. The only thing I can recall about that morning is my doctor’s colorful ornamented cap and his heart-warming eyes and smile.
(To be continued…)