Learning from cancer

Learning from cancer

October 16, 2011, Sunday/ 15:44:00/ ALISON KENNY

If you are going to have cancer, there is a lot to be said for having it in Antalya, as I have found.

Over the past seven months of living in Antalya, I have not been to work, nor have I attended any worthy educational programs. In fact, I have rarely stretched my brain to more than a half-hearted attempt at a simple crossword. Most of the time has been spent lounging on my sofa or skulking around the garden.

Given my diagnosis last January and the recommended length of treatment, it would have seemed sensible to fill this unexpected amount of free time at home with any number of useful projects. However, having cancer is no picnic, and the emotional strain combined with the physical limitations brought about by the drugs are more than enough to numb the brain into a state of nearly complete lethargy. And yet, now that I am over the worst -- radiotherapy and chemotherapy are finished, at least for the time being -- I find that I have actually learnt quite a significant amount during this strange period of my life. So, here are a few thoughts from a period in my life that has helped me view my life in my adopted homeland in a new light.

Patient patients

Through my seemingly endless trips to the hospital, I have learned just how patient Turkish people can be. Often guilty of seeing my adopted countrymen as impatience incarnate -- barging in front of me to pay in a shop, pushing their way into an elevator or, more frequently, displaying aggressive impatience in traffic jams -- I now appreciate a different side to the national psyche. I frequently had to spend up to four hours alongside my fellow patients while waiting to see a consultant. Personally, I couldn't maintain my equilibrium for this length of time without the aid of newspapers, books and crosswords. But this is not so of Turkish folk. In seven months, I have only ever observed one person bring out a book; as for the rest, they are able to just sit and wait without having to resort to endless distractions. I have never witnessed any sign of tempers being frayed during these interminable waits.

Antalya weather

Antalya weather patterns have a major effect both on my mood and on the livestock in my garden. In the winter and spring months, my dog was pretty active in keeping the garden safe from the invasion of the local street cats. However, since the onset of the summer heat, her war against the feline occupants of the neighborhood has given in to total apathy. She will occasionally open one eye and idly watch a kitten help itself to the biscuits in her bowl, but she makes no attempt to remove her erstwhile enemy. The summer heat does not, however, seem to have put a stop to the constant antics of the many doves that have chosen to make their home in our garden. No, the ability of the males to chase the females around in pursuit of a quick romp is not affected by the temperatures in any way, and the number of fledglings continues to rise. I have also learnt the favorite hiding places of all three of my tortoises and am becoming familiar with the group dynamics, although I'm still trying to figure out how to make the smallest one more socially acceptable to the other two.

Learning Turkish

Spending a considerable amount of time involved with the medical world has greatly increased my Turkish vocabulary. While I have failed to spend any regular time on improving my ability to communicate in Turkish, I have, incidentally, succeeded in enlarging my knowledge of some very important and useful Turkish words. For example: reçete = prescription; kan sonuç = blood result; tedavi = treatment; derin bir nefes al = take a deep breath -- to name but a few. Obviously, I hope I will never have to use or hear many of these words again, but probably they will be the very ones to stick in my mind for a very long time.


I have learned to accept the inevitable differences between the Turkish and British medical systems. In the UK, everything appears to be more thoroughly organized and controlled by the hospital hierarchy -- appointments are made for the patient in advance and sent out, scans are not left to chance but booked for you, results of tests are sent to the appropriate consultants and delivered to the patient at the appointed time. The drawback of this system is the amount of time that elapses between appointments, often involving weeks. Here, in Antalya, if I need to see a consultant, I can turn up on the day, being prepared to wait, but always being seen. Any test results are put into my hands and I am free to use these in any way I please. The cultural and language barrier seemed at first to present problems, but have now become an accepted part of the way things work here.


Being largely housebound has made me appreciate just how brilliant the Internet is. Not only has it provided me with an endless source of reading material -- information, newspapers and, through my Kindle, any book I want -- but it has also kept me in touch with my family and friends. I am probably older than the average Facebook user, but have loved checking out the activities and whereabouts of my kids. They are not always so keen on writing emails, but are more than happy to post a few photos for me to look at or write the odd brief message. The ability to Skype, complete with a webcam, at any time and for no additional cost has been a huge advantage. My kids have thoroughly enjoyed laughing at my bald head and attempts to wear a wig.

Filling the day

It is amazing how easy it is to fill an entire day doing almost nothing. The few jobs I managed to complete -- hanging out the washing, emptying the dishwasher, watering the two house plants -- would easily fill my day, even though these were tasks I would formerly have completed before going off to work at 8 a.m.

How incredibly tedious daytime TV really is, particularly the American chat shows. My pet peeve is “The Dr. Oz Show,” where he imparts the most inane facts to a mostly female audience and every word he utters is greeted with the loudest shrieks and applause imaginable. Equally tedious but more watchable are the numerous cooking programs that I often found myself drawn to, possible in the vain hope that it would inspire me to get off my backside and cook something. Needless to say, it didn't work.

Friends and family

Most importantly, of course, have been all the fantastic friends, both here in Antalya and back in the UK, who have kept me going through these months. All the visits, phone calls, messages, emails and thoughts have been a lifesaver for me. I have learned the importance of friends and family and hope that I will always appreciate their value.

So, despite the lack of structure or formal learning to my time, I can't help but think that I have gained a huge amount since January. I'm sure that I will never forget any of these lessons and will hopefully restart my life as a more informed and well-rounded person.