Metastatic cancer: When the doctor tells you to go home

‘Weather, grass, friendship – these joys are what make me feel at home. Wherever I am’

Like many people with metastatic cancer, I spend a lot of time waiting for results. I moved to Ireland three years ago and at the beginning of this summer, just before returning to the United States for a month, I had a scan that indicated the tumours in my liver were progressing but I was told that we needed to wait, to see whether the growth continued.

“The best thing you can do is go home,” my oncologist said, looking at me in a way I would spend the next few weeks replaying – was she saying she wasn’t worried, or was she saying I should see my family, before we acknowledged that I was dying? And what does she know about my “home”, anyway?

I flew back to America, and did a lot of swimming on Cape Cod, in oceans of family, cousins and friends – and in the Atlantic too, of course, trying to put off the thought of my next scan. But before I knew it, I was back in Dublin getting the results. My tumours are indeed growing. But my excellent oncologist is unphased: she has a new drug for me to try, and is so certain of its success that it almost seemed we’d received good news.

My partner and I asked a few tentative questions about my prognosis, and whether I should explore the trickier territory of trials. But as I left the office, it struck me that the technicalities of treatment are far less challenging than the question of how to manage the time between these prescriptive moments – the time when I am “home”.



In the first few days that we were on Cape Cod, my partner kept asking if I was “glad to be home”, looking at me as if she could discover, in my face, how to make me happy. This was not, of course, because she did not understand why being beside the ocean with friends and family suited me, but because she knew I was trying to zoom in on happiness, and maximise it.

The doctor's sentiment (and the proverbial wisdom) that "home" is uniquely restorative is hard to resist. When we moved to Ireland, I began to research my ancestors in Donegal, and a librarian directed me to a 19th century valuation of property in Ireland, where he instantly located a small hand-sketched square belonging to the Sweeneys. "This is your home place," he said eagerly, looking at me the same way my partner did on Cape Cod.

You don't have to be member of to be convinced of the magical effects of "home", even one that is nearly two centuries away from your lived experience. But when I went up to Donegal to find that little cottage sketched on the map, and watched the waves crashing on the rounded stones, and the grass stirring on the dunes, and a seal looking at me from the bay, I couldn't be sure why I felt so incredibly moved.

Was it the luxury of a lonesome, windswept walk by the sea? Or the echo of my ancestors at the hearth? I’ve often found tranquillity in the places I’d never been – places where I can be ecstatically alone, with no expectations or responsibilities.

Going to my childhood home, at this point, means taking care of responsibilities. This summer, “at home” in my parents’ house, it occurred to me that I was enjoying myself simply because I didn’t need to worry that I was not “home”.

Secular grace

I could reach out and lean on my father whenever I saw him, I take my mother’s hand, exactly as knobby and knuckly as my own. But was it better than being “home” in Dublin, and having that same instinct, with those who need my comfort and care far away?

I have a habit, at the dinner table, of asking my children to tell me their favourite part of their day. It serves as a sort of secular grace, reminding us to be grateful when we’re happy and cheering us when we’re cranky. My favourite part of Cape Cod was the warm sea water. With my mother’s goggles on, I’d walk into the sea and hold my breath for a long dive, cruise past algaed rocks and little crabs and conch shells like an airplane. I’d swim far enough to see straight out the channel feel the pull of the wide open sea. Or quietly breast stroke to the buoy where a cormorant perched, get close enough to see his peculiar orange eyes, the way his oily feathers glistened.

Back in Dublin, the grass on the football pitch I run past in the morning to get a glimpse of the Dublin Mountains, which was yellow by the end of the hottest Irish summer on record, has gone bright green. The kids are wearing jackets to school, and friends are handing off paper bags full of apples.

And it occurs to me that these sorts of joys – weather, grass, sky, friendship – are what make me feel at home.

Wherever I am.