The other night I dreamed I had cancer. My leg swelled at the calf muscle as though someone had taken out a chunk and repositioned it to the front of my leg. I hobbled about like a person with a broken leg.
It was one of those dreams where I woke to a wash of relief when I realised it was not true.
And yet it could be true and this morning I find myself wondering whether a dream like this might be a way of preparing myself for the worst that is to come.
Not necessarily that I have cancer but the idea that my body will one day fail me, and I will look death in the face.
Maybe dreams like this give us an opportunity to prepare even though in this dream I was distressed, I was also surviving. I could survive the knowledge that one day soon I would be no more.
A thought far worse than the one I once struggled with when I was a child, trying to imagine what the world was like before I was in it.
I suspect many of us think like this. The world that existed before we were here feels different from the world that existed without us in it.
I’m often dogged by occasional bursts of hypochondria, the hideous preoccupation that there might be something seriously wrong with something in my body and if I don’t get it rectified it’ll kill me.
I was a student at university the day I noticed a lump on top of my foot near my big toe. A lump of something under my flesh between the bone and my skin that rolled around under my finger when I massaged it.
The fact it was not painful worried me.
There was an advertisement doing the rounds of my childhood:
‘A lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere,’ the stern BBC voice over said, ‘could be a sign of cancer. And then series of lumps on the screen.
‘A lump or thickening anywhere, needs a doctor’s attention.’
And cancer was one of those horrid things that tricked you into thinking all was well even when faced with a lump because in the beginning and without any other symptoms, cancer was not necessarily painful.
In those days I did not visit a regular GP but took myself to which ever practice was nearby to home or work.
On the bus down Warrigal Road I looked at my foot snug in its summer sandals and contemplated my fate.
I was convinced I had cancer and even though I was only twenty-two, it was only a matter of time before I would be dead.
My state of mind on going into the doctor’s surgery was one of terror but after I saw the doctor and left the surgery, my mind did a summersault. Similar to somersaults I’ve since completed when some aberration in my body causes me to imagine death is around the corner, after which I’m given a reprieve.
‘You have a ganglion’ the doctor in the Murrumbeena practice told me as a train rattled by and almost swallowed up his words.’
‘A ganglion. Nothing to worry about. Most likely it’ll go away of its own accord. Just a cluster of cells bunched together for reasons we don’t fully understand.’
‘Not cancer then?’
‘Not at all,’ the doctor said. ‘In the old days people treated their ganglions by dropping a bible on top. That way you disperse the lump.’
He rubbed at my foot as if to smooth away his ganglion. ‘You can rub at it this way that if you want, or leave it till it disappears of its own accord. Or it might just stay.’
I did not drop a bible onto my foot. I settled for its presence for several weeks more. And then one day I looked down and it was gone.
Never to reappear, at least not there.
Other lumps have erupted since but I’m more sanguine about them now, knowing that beyond a certain age, the process of ageing offers us all manner of skin deformities and although it’s imperative to keep an eye out for the scary ones that signal a melanoma, most of them are just signs of ageing.
My maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer when she was 67. To me as a four-year-old she seemed ancient. Now when I’m fast approaching that age, I reckon she was a youngster.
Too young by half to die. But my mother told me long before she herself died that her mother had ignored all the signs.
Her mother had been too frightened to take herself off the doctor to check out what was causing her bloated belly and the large lump that rested below her waist.
My grandmother might have dreamed of having cancer but if she did, she ignored it.
I, on the other hand, in my hypochondriacal state, maybe pay too much attention.