Live to Dive Another Day
A few short months after returning from my blissful, sun-drenched vacation at Hideaway Island in Vanuatu where I completed my Open Water dive certification, my picture-perfect world was turned upside down. I discovered that I had advanced endometrial cancer. To be honest, I'd been having symptoms for many months, but it had taken me a long time to admit to myself that they were becoming severe and needed further investigation. After explaining that I was too young to have this disease and outlining all the gory details of the life-saving, life-changing surgery I would need to have quickly, the oncologist asked if I had any questions. I asked him how soon I would be able to dive again.
In August 2010, my radical hysterectomy was performed via robot to reduce the risk of infection, but the massive infection I contracted afterwards almost killed me anyway. The road to recovery was very long, very slow and very, very painful. For close to a year, I couldn't work, couldn't drive and I certainly couldn't dive. I cried because I desperately wanted to walk my twin Golden Retrievers Sophie and Jake, but I couldn't even manage the simplest of tasks for myself. Yet somehow, peaceful memories of floating through the ocean became my primary motivation to get myself well. Every moment that my tired body ached, I craved salt water against my skin, longing to glide like a bright fish through streaming sunlight. Instead, I was confined to my bed or landlocked on the couch, desperately trying not to feel so sorry for myself.
It felt like a lifetime before I finally found the physical strength and courage to pull on my gear to try a tentative dive under a shallow, local pier. But quickly my passion to spend as much time underwater became an obsession! Most weekends, some kind soul would drive me for an hour to dive beneath one of five local piers where I gradually spent up to two hours per tank of air. And as passionate as I was about being submersed, my greatest thrill was sharing all the blissful marine critters I encountered with those I considered to be 'dive-deprived' through my underwater images and videos.
Those who knew me best made jokes about my newfound OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Diving). But they also understood that my intense passion was helping me to rise above my diagnosis. For two and a half years, I lived as though I had never been sick at all, diving almost every weekend. Even winter couldn't keep me out of the water, and diving at night in 8 degrees celcius in a 7 mm wetsuit til I was so cold I could barely feel my face was not at all uncommon. I seized an opportunity to travel alone to the Philippines to take part in an intensive underwater photography workshop, doing thirty-eight dives in ten days but still craving more. How sweet and wonderful and bright was life, now finally out of the shadow of death! How I felt myself grow stronger and more full of life with each and every dive.
Facing cancer and my own mortality had made me completely fearless. When the opportunity arose in 2013 to dive in Fiji with bull, nurse and lemon sharks, I dived in with both fins on to cross this awesome experience off my bucket list. But while I returned from this vacation elated, my strong suspicions that something wasn't quite right were quickly confirmed. Despite my surgery a few years prior, the cancer had begun to invade my body again; the carefree life I had rebuilt for myself spiralled out of my sight, sinking like a lost weight pocket from the sunniest surface to the darkest ocean floor. Again, all diving was put on hold until further life-saving action could be taken.
The prognosis for patients with recurrent, advanced stage endometrial cancer isn't very inspiring. I had five surgeries in six months with massive complications. Wounds that wouldn't heal. More than 160 days in or at hospital in less than a year, not counting the endless, murky surge of doctor and specialist appointments. Then just as the surface started to calm, new tumours appeared in my lymph nodes, making the prognosis even more grim. I was scheduled to begin six weeks of daily radiation combined with weekly chemotherapy.
But as the waves crashed down over my head again and again and again, I resisted the urge to panic and allowed myself just to pause and breathe. And when I weighed the odds and risks of treatment against the small chance I'd been given that it might do me any good, I made the decision to take matters into my own hands. Every battle is won and lost in the mind. I knew that while the doctors and surgeons had addressed the symptoms of the disease, they clearly hadn't addressed the causes of my illness or been able to prevent it from recurring. Strangely, I felt empowered, deciding for myself that every choice I would make from this point forward must be dictated by my need to regain and sustain my health. I did mountains of research and adopted lots of cancer fighting lifestyle changes and protocols, including organic tumour fighting food combinations and negotiating a part-time return to work once I was strong enough to do so.
I refused to feel helpless or to just lie down and die. Instead, I chose to dive for my life.
When I refused conventional treatment, I asked my specialists their opinion on this. My original oncology team disowned me when I rejected their treatments, so I replaced them with a team of hand-picked specialists who agreed to be my sounding boards as I navigate my journey in my own death-defying way. 'You've obviously chosen quality of life over duration,' some told me. 'You should do whatever makes you happy, because you've only got a couple of years to live.' But what they still don't seem to understand is this: in my game of 'rock, paper, scissors', scuba beats chemo. Ocean therapy is restoring my battered mind, body and soul. Every minute I spend underwater renews my soul and extends my life, making me appreciate every uncountable minute that I have left to walk this planet and to dive its oceans even more.
Even though I'm unable to carry my own heavy dive gear because of some post-surgery complications, I have the most incredible people in my life who care enough to help me get in and out of the water any weekend that the weather permits (plus, there's usually valet diving oversees if my husband and I can scrape the pennies together for another vacation!) When I am underwater, I truly feel fully alive, and I bring that life back with me to the surface to sustain me until I can descend again. Having cancer reminds me how precious life truly is and only inspires me to celebrate being alive even more intensely. Every day is a gift from above and every dive is a blessing below. Every life is a wonder to behold, whether critter or human, ending young or growing old.
By sinking to the ocean floor, I transcend the worries of the world above, returning each time with something unique to celebrate. I intensify my joy by sharing my passion through my underwater photography and videos, inspiring others to deepen their own sense of awe and wonder about the glorious planet they too will only inhabit for a time. I have recently started a blog (www.pinktankscuba.com) and facebook page called Pink Tank Scuba (pink is the colour that makes me feel filled to overflowing with life, and I would paint the world pink if I could!) And while I'm very honest about the ongoing, daily challenges I face with my health, I never let this illness overshadow my sheer bliss at the amazing critters I have the privilege of sharing the ocean with, and the greater bliss that comes from sharing them with the world.
Hovering above the ocean floor and looking up through the water's surface at that shimmering, life-giving ball of sun on the other side provides a whole new perspective. A different perspective turns fear into awe and the salty tears of self-pity into an ocean of life-giving laughter. I live to laugh. I live to dive. I live simply to be alive. For now, I live to dive another day.
Love and bubbles!
Written by PT Hirschfield