Facing the fallibility of the human body

Wednesday 8 September I had woken up reminding myself to chat to Anson for tips on having an MRI, as I was scheduled for one the next day. Anson was the ideal person to reach out to – not only had he experienced his fair share of MRIs over the past year following his diagnosis with head and neck cancer, but he is also a dear friend, colleague and mentor. Professor Anson Mackay was one of my three PhD supervisors, and based at UCL, he was my primary point of contact during the split site component of my PhD that I had spent at the Environmental Change Research Centre at UCL in their Geography department. Since completing my PhD, Anson has become my most valued mentor, an enthusiastic research collaborator, and really a very dear friend. 

As someone who is far more comfortable hiding away from fear than facing it, I managed to ‘forget’ to contact Anson throughout that day. The idea popped into my head every once in a while, only to be squashed by the next conference talk that I hopped onto Zoom for; I was in the middle of the SSAG/SAAG Conference that week, presenting two papers, and mentoring a large group of my postgraduate students who were presenting for the first time at an academic conference. I didn’t even think I had that much to fear – the MRI, MRA and Doppler were very much a precaution to rule out anything sinister. I have struggled with my thyroid this year. I have an autoimmune thyroid condition – Hashimotos thyroiditis, which is treated by replacing the thyroid hormones that are under-produced by your body. At the beginning of January, these thyroid levels were being quite dramatically over-replaced through over-medication and an acute thyroiditis, resulting in a range of unpleasant symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Following the subsequent reduction of my dose of thyroid replacement hormones when this was detected, it took about 3 months to reach normal range, and a further 3 months to start to feel myself again. The first three months coincided with the very stressful preparation and teaching of an all-online module to our first years, as the second wave of COVID-19 was in full force. There was no time for sick leave, and I just pushed through, one day at a time. Back to the present, at the 9-month mark I was still struggling with occasional dizziness, and hence it made sense to do an MRI (and MRA and doppler of the carotid artery) to check that there wasn’t anything more sinister behind it. I was largely convinced there was not. 

I saw Anson’s name pop up in my inbox that evening – and as I saw it, I remembered again to ask him for tips. His email, although partly discussing possible projects and PhD cosupervision, was also letting me know that the CT scan he’d recently had showed abnormalities. My heart sank. He was still optimistic in that email that it could be a red herring, and gave me some really excellent advice on how to stay calm in an MRI. 

I did manage to stay calm, and thank goodness the MRI, MRA and doppler came back clear. I did wonder briefly, while lying in the MRI, whether my productivity and success was perhaps just an Amelia Sheppard-type brain tumour (Grey’s Anatomy fans would understand). Fortunately not. Anson, however, was not as lucky. After fighting and overcoming neck cancer in 2020, and subsequently running multiple ultramarathons, he has just been diagnosed with a new primary cancer – this time of the lungs. I received a text from him to let me know last week, shortly before he started publishing on his cancer blog again. The news is devastating. To me personally, but also because I can only just begin to understand what this has felt like for him and his partner David. I am scared – one of the most important and influencial people in my life has cancer for a second time; this time far more difficult to treat, and so he’s looking at what life with cancer will look like, rather than the path to eradicate it. We have so many projects planned, projects that involve helicopter trips to South Africa’s highest peak, road trips through Lesotho to collect samples, and so much data to analyse. I have so much still to learn from Anson – about diatoms and isotopes, about academia, and about life. I need to keep reminding myself that I will still have time to learn from Anson, we just might need to both pace ourselves a bit better.

It also all feels so terribly unfair. Anson has run ultramarathons in the past 18 months! The feeling of illness being unfair is one I feel in relation to Anson’s diagnosis and my own health challenges – a year ago I was pushing myself too hard, working long hours, taking on too much, and struggling to effectively handle stress. All very standard in academia, and indeed often glamourised. I had been doing this my whole life. It is no surprise then that I would eventually have had to face the fallibility of my own health, and at the beginning of the year it was scary not understanding what was wrong and whether this was all just my thyroid. However, 9 months later I have taken a 5-month sabbatical (albeit still a busy one with many research deadlines, and commitments to various societies), gone on at least a 2km each day (most days 3.5km, some days 8km), developed a better sleep cycle, reduced my workload to something a little bit more manageable, started doing Yoga regularly, and eaten a more balanced diet. Yet I still struggle with my health fairly often; I still don’t quite feel myself as reliably as I used to, and can’t just push myself to handle the next thing that lands on my plate. It feels unfair – I am taking things slowly, I am paying attention to my health, and I still don’t feel quite right. I don’t know how to feel that way again, and while I do want to feel reliably healthy, perhaps I shouldn’t want or aspire to go back to doing every and anything. 

Life throws curveballs at us, and the lessons aren’t always clear. Sometimes bad news is just bad news, and if this year has taught me anything, it is to sit with the fear, the loss, the devastation and just feel it. As difficult as that is. And then learn – how to make work more sustainable, how to enjoy each day, and how to become the best parts of the people I most look up to.

Stop, take a breath and celebrate your achievements

If you think about it, people are achieving all time the time. They are just not always achieving ‘what they set their minds to’. This is so me! Go on and do this, then that, achieve! Achieve! Achieve! That is all I ever think. How about taking a second to just celebrate what I have already achieved? My greatest weakness is the inability to celebrate. When I obtained my honours degree, acing my mini-dissertation which has inspired my forthcoming journal paper, I could not celebrate. It felt like a very small achievement. I thought to myself, almost everyone has an honours degree these days, probably with a distinction too. I felt I needed to achieve more before I could pop a Champagne cork, pat myself at the back and celebrate.

I went on to register for my Master of Arts shortly after that. Get this, I aced my dissertation with a distinction. I do not want to give the impression that I cruised through the whole process, I would be lying. It was never a smooth ride. I spent sleepless nights in my supervisor’s office and the days in the library. I had moments of self-doubt, and emotional breakdowns. When I finally got my results that I had worked so hard towards, I still felt somewhat unfulfilled. I had the same feeling I got when I obtain my Honours. And I still could not celebrate.

My inability to celebrate has to do with my inability to acknowledge myself as a hard-working, persevering and determined student. Before I even graduated with my MA I got myself a job as a part-time lecturer at a university. Exciting, right? Given the state of the economy in the country currently, I should be celebrating, but oh boy, I am thinking about a permanent post. I keep telling myself that maybe my 5th journal paper, a PhD, NFR rating and a permanent job will be fulfilling and worth a celebration. Chances are when I do get all these, I will have my sights on something more. Perhaps, a professorship and being a head of a division or department at university perhaps.

The truth is I know for a fact I have achieved so much. However, because of the pictures I have created in my mind of what success is, I am unable to celebrate my actual milestone successes. Now I wonder, is that all there is to life? Is this an academic’s whole life? I can literally feel all the other aspects of my life suffering because of my inability to celebrate my successes which fuels the need to do more, cutting off the rest of my life. To do more in just one aspect – professional growth, while all the other aspects are suffering. Our lives are made up of bits and pieces, building blocks and these needs a proper balance.

I hope I do not become unfulfilled and depressed with a PhD, a permanent academic job and NRF rating. Really! I need to stop, take a deep breath, look where I came from and give myself a pat on the shoulders and, yes, a round of applause and perhaps even whisper into my own ears that, I am, as the urban youth would say “GOAT”- Greatest of All Time.