The Physical Experience of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (or how having cancer made me really fucking angry for no obvious reason)

What follow is a guest post written by a friend, James, which arose out of a discussion we were having about the connection between body and mind. It’s a fascinating account of his experience. I’d like to thank James profusely for allowing me to publish it here.

Abstract – Discussion of the disjunction between mental processes/physical sensations and the resultant emotional states and some thoughts on possible causal links.

The theory advanced is that serious illness produces a physical sub-rational understanding that the body is dying which is manifested directly in pre-rational emotional states and occur as a surprise to the rational reasoning intellect.

Illustrated with examples from living with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and with parallels drawn with the character of Walter White/Heisenberg in Breaking Bad, who accurately reflects the otherwise inexplicable rage and will to power of a previously mild mannered individual suffering from Cancer.

 

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I was coughing a lot, which as it turns out was because of the fist sized tumour in my neck constricting my windpipe.[1]   My wife demanded I see the Doctor, partly out of concern and partly because the coughing was annoying her so off to the GP I went. They decided to refer me to the hospital for ‘tests’ and were unhelpfully vague as to the details.

The first sign of what later became fairly frequent outbursts of irrational anger happened as I was standing outside a record shop on my mobile phone. The fact that I wanted to get inside and look for records probably didn’t help my levels of patience and tolerance.

The GP had written me a referral letter. I wanted to know what it said so I phoned to ask for a copy. The receptionist who I spoke to said I couldn’t have a copy as it ‘wasn’t policy’ or some such bullshit. At this point I saw red. I told her in a calm but threatening voice that I was going to have a copy, that she could either put a copy in the post to me right now or I would come and get a copy and I suspected that she would prefer the former option. She agreed to do the former and I immediately hung up on her.

As I type this I can feel a surge of adrenalin pumping through my body, triggered by the memory of this conversation.[2] Combined with the usual large amount of coffee I had this morning I feel quite light headed and am shaking a little. I presume this is the standard ‘fight or flight’ response but it amazes me still that thinking back to a short telephone conversation two years ago can still trigger an immediate physical response which is otherwise unheralded by any present physical stimulus.

It turned out to be Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes, in my case in the neck, requiring a course of Chemotherapy followed by Radiotherapy. As I am not stupid and can use the internet I worked out what it probably was before I got to the appointment where somebody sat me down and said ‘You have Cancer’. The prognosis was good, they had caught it fairly early and it was eminently treatable. So far so good. At the time I was entirely fine about it and didn’t really feel much at all about the situation other than it was going to be annoying to have to take however many months off work. Or so I thought.

The next incident I recall was over lunch at a local pub. I ordered a sandwich which I was underwhelmed by but because I am English and don’t complain and because it wasn’t actually inedible and I was hungry I ate it anyway. On leaving and paying I was asked by the unsuspecting manager/staff member whether we had enjoyed our meal. So I told her exactly what I thought of it, which was vehemently negative and borderline psychotic in tone, albeit very quiet and without swearing, making it impossible for her to cut the conversation short and have us thrown out. She was shocked to the point of speechlessness and I recall ending the conversation by telling her that the offer of a free meal in future would be entirely useless, because I would never set foot in the place again and that I would be telling everyone I knew to do likewise because their food was unfit for human consumption. I may also have said that I wouldn’t feed it to my dog.[3]

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