I imagined spending my last weeks with friends. Isolated in my flat, Im having to rethink what a good death might be, says Elliot Dallen
As I was lying in a hospital bed last July after complications arising from chemotherapy, my oncologist entered the room with my scan results. Hospital had become familiar to me but his next words werent. The treatment wasnt working. There was little else that could be done. I pressed him to be more specific and was told bluntly that I wouldnt last a year. I would be lucky to have half that time. This was nine months ago, before Covid-19, and Im very unlikely to be alive to see the other side of lockdown.
Almost two years ago, as summer in London was just beginning, an ultrasound to investigate a bladder infection found a large tumour on my right adrenal gland that had spread to my lungs. I was diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma, an extremely rare and aggressive cancer. It is in desperate need of research; when it is advanced there is very little effective treatment. This was not something I expected in my late 20s. Early on, after reading the bleak statistics, I started preparing myself for the inevitable. But treatment began positively and my focus changed to getting better. When death isnt staring you in the face, it is easy to push back the difficult thoughts and conversations. Dying was something to address later.
Now my oncologist has said I cannot have further treatment. His reasoning is that it would leave me vulnerable to becoming ill at a time when there are not enough resources to help, and also because the nurses normally available are busy helping others. Im still feeling good, better, in fact, without chemo. But I feel like Im living on borrowed time. I no longer look like the archetype of someone with cancer Im back to my natural weight and have a full head of hair. I often feel like the old me, except with an awful attempt at a moustache.
Last month, before all this started, I took the opportunity to go to Colombia. I explored that beautiful country, danced badly to reggaeton and met people from around the world. The sun was shining and most of the time everything felt normal. But the dark clouds of coronavirus were looming, and when I arrived home, the reality hit that this was the final stage of my journey.
Whenever I had thought about the last few weeks of life before, I always pictured them being surrounded by friends and family. Id eat at my favourite restaurants, go to south London parks where Ive shared kisses and lazy days. Id get to watch the bands that soundtracked my life in Londons festivals, and frequent the bars and beer gardens that, for better or worse, have defined my adulthood. Crucially, Id spend time with the people whom I had shared those experiences with; who made me the person I am today. When I became sicker, we would watch films, listen to music, laugh, cry, talk about both the big things and the little things. It would be a period that maybe only tends to come in times of tragedy, where vulnerability and urgency create connections at a higher level. Where the bittersweet feelings of love and loss exist simultaneously and we are at our most human.
None of this can happen right now. This good death described above is being denied to me due to the pandemic, and instead I face a steady decline into nothingness. Currently I am cut off from my family; my sister, who I live with, works for the NHS so is temporarily staying with friends to avoid bringing home any infection. I am one of the many vulnerable people being protected for their own benefit.Just stuck in my flat, alone. Waiting.
Im taking each day as it comes. I wake up and take a few moments to be grateful that Im still feeling well. I eat well, exercise and have days filled with video calls and Netflix, like everybody else. After many months of chemo Im quite used to being housebound. Im not bored; I oscillate between feeling pensive and flat. I cant help my thoughts sometimes running away and turning to everything I will miss out on. Planned weddings that I now cant attend. Friends children Ill never meet. People I thought Id grow old with that Ill never see again. Let alone what my own future would have brought. In these moments I feel devastated, and frustrated that there is no one to blame. Others feel time is standing still right now, but for me it is slipping through my fingers.
I do expect to spend some quality time with my family soon. I still plan to have conversations with friends so that when I go, nothing is left unsaid, even if they are not held face to face. On top of that, I am still grateful for so much within these four walls listening to music, learning new things or even simply looking at the beautiful view from my window.
Before cancer I considered myself very independent. This man was an island. It has been humbling to learn how much I depend on people, both physically and emotionally. I feel so fortunate to have had my people over this period, and facing the future without them is truly daunting. Whether times are good, bad, or worse, it is ultimately the people whom you love and care about that get you through. For me, these people didnt just get me through the last two years, but somehow made them two of the best years of my life.
Real connection is something that I think a lot of people in the country are missing right now. As much as possible, it is vital we keep that going, even if it is limited, and help those most in need of this for example, elderly and homeless people: those who suffer isolation outside of an enforced lockdown.
Politicians and medical experts talk about the light at the end of the tunnel. People will eventually open their doors again and restart their lives as the country attempts to move back to normality. For me, and Im sure plenty of others in a similar position, there is no light to give me hope. The tunnel is all that there is, and Im having to find my way in the dark.
Elliot Dallen is from Cardiff and has worked in finance in London since graduating
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