Time sliding away: viewing change from cancer’s helter skelter

The first of two episodes of Time is Sliding looking at past, present and future changes from the perspective of the biggest change that we will all face personally – death. If we know we’re close to it because of a doctor’s prognosis, that knowledge can change our attitudes and understanding of our own lives as well as the wider world. 

Episode transcript here.

Photo by Daphné Be Frenchie on Unsplash

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who lived about 2,500 years ago, is credited with saying ‘There is nothing permanent except change’. That’s true for many aspects of existence but, whatever you believe in, the end of a person’s bodily life is permanent. We’re all sliding down our life’s helter skelter at various speeds until our time comes. What we can’t do is emulate the lyrics of that famous Beatles song, Helter Skelter, and go back to the top after reaching the bottom. Not even reincarnation brings a dead body back to life.

When someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the bottom of their life’s helter skelter is within sight. But even with the dubious benefit of a doctor’s prognosis, they are unlikely to know when they will arrive at that permanent stop. 

My friend Steve died recently after living with an advanced prostate cancer diagnosis for over eight years. He regarded cancer as his mentor for change and reevaluating his life. His resultant unique perspective is reflected in a pamphlet of his poems published before his death and appropriately entitled Prepostumous Poems.

Portrait of Phil Baylis

Phil Baylis, my brother, died in 2020. He only survived for seven months after a diagnosis of an aggressive gall bladder cancer. He didn’t know precisely how long he had left but he knew it was not going to be years like Steve.  

Phil’s cancer symptoms, chemotherapy, blood transfusions and reactions to the treatment were forever changing. He and his wife adopted the phrase ‘one day at a time’ as their guiding principle. (I reminded them about the John Lennon song with that phrase as its title). Some days were better than others but the twelve-hourly paracetamol battle with Phil’s spikes in temperature was one thing that didn’t change much.

It’s in this context that I recorded an informal and socially distanced interview with Phil almost exactly three months before he died. I had previously discussed with him the fact that I was developing a podcast on the theme of change and he was up for it. Despite tiredness and weakness brought on by low levels of haemoglobin in his blood, he told me he was happy for the recording to go ahead on the day we’d agreed on.   

It hasn’t been easy for me to be objective or control emotions whilst listening to and editing the three-hour recording after Phil’s departure. What has kept me going and made me laugh out loud, often, has been his infectious and dry sense of humour, sometimes gallows humour. It really tickles the ears and I hope that listeners will enjoy that.

It is meaningful to me that Part 1 of the interview with Phil is being released as the first episode of Time is Sliding on the anniversary of our discussion, the 25th July 2021. Part 2 is being released one month later.

Throughout his life, Phil held interesting and insightful perspectives on many things. I may be conning myself but I think that his prognosis had refined and sharpened his wisdom. I think it shows in our recorded discussion when we explored a variety of changes he had seen and changes that might happen in the future.  It can’t have been easy for him to look into a future that he would probably not reach.  Perhaps his love of science fiction had helped him. I’ll cover more about that in the blog about episode 2 of Time is Sliding

Phil’s career started in the National Health Service as a Medical Laboratory Scientific Officer in haematology. Blood was his business at that time and it became personally significant to him again as his cancer progressed. However, his work in haematology stimulated a particular interest in computing that led him to working for hospital computer systems companies for the rest of his life.

Near the start of episode 1 of Time is Sliding, I ask Phil if he would describe himself to other people as a Christian. I knew it was important to him. There can’t be many people who, like him, have read The Bible from cover to cover. He was also a well-respected member of his local church and his profound Christian faith stayed with him throughout his illness. His church’s bells were tolled in his honour at his funeral.

Phil loved music from an early age and that crops up several times in the discussion about change. As a boy, he had been head chorister in Worcester Cathedral Choir and sung Allegri’s Miserere in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. He returned to singing in his fifties as a bass in the Rivendell Singers, a mixed voice choir in his local area.  He was also having singing lessons to further his ambitions to be a soloist and duetist.

Left: Worcester Cathedral. The Chapter House in the left side of the photo is where the cathedral choir rehearsed.

As well as choral music, Phil’s taste in music covered a wide range of other music. In our discussion we touched on Blind Faith and David Bowie.  In my commentary in the episode, I reflect on research by Cambridge University into how musical tastes change with age.

One of the most haunting clips in the episode is when Phil describes how his illness had eroded his abilities and thwarted his music-related plans…and yet he accepted those changes and losses as a trade off for staying alive. It’s impressive how Phil showed no anger about the huge changes he was going through.

On the surface, Phil’s reactions to his illness are in contrast with popular interpretations of the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She published a book in 1969 with the title “On Death And Dying”. In it, she described five stages that she had observed in the emotional reactions of people facing terminal illnesses just like Phil’s. So, we might have expected Phil to progress through feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  However, Kübler-Ross warned that many of these stages can overlap, occur simultaneously, or be missed out as in the case of Phil’s reactions.

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

Phil’s diagnosis came fairly early in the UK’s first Covid 19 lockdown in March 2020. There was no hint of him ever being in denial about it. So had he skipped Kübler-Ross’s bargaining and depression stages too? I was not aware of him trying to negotiate staying alive for longer so that he could be there for a family milestone. But he was certainly trying to live as long as he could. That’s why he signed up for a trial of a new cancer treatment. In my book, that is not bargaining. Was it bargaining for him to accept his inability to do things like singing – as a trade-off for continuing to live? I don’t think so either.

As for depression, I didn’t see it in him as such but Phil’s emotions could be triggered when talking about important pieces of music, for example. But getting emotional about something that touches you does not mean that you are depressed. Sensitive, yes. Could he have been hiding depression? No. His gallows humour, and his humour in all other circumstances, was just how he was and not a brave face on inner turmoil.

At the time of the recording four months after his cancer diagnosis, Phil was certainly demonstrating the final stage in the Kübler-Ross grief cycle – acceptance. This wasn’t new. In my interactions with him, he had not shown anything other than acceptance once he had had that shocking diagnosis. He was realistic about the big change coming at some uncertain, but imminent, stage and so he prepared the whole family for it. He was open about it and gave advice about how to handle it.

Despite Kübler-Ross’s caveats, the five stages of emotional reaction to change have been adopted almost as an inevitability in business and organisational change-management circles. The resultant model has been used to help understand or predict how people will react to changes in many aspects of their lives from departmental restructures at work, to ageing or the changes necessary to mitigate climate change. However, and as seen in Phil’s case, it’s unlikely that all five stages can be expected in every change in our lives. I’m not sure they would apply to moving house for example. Unless, of course, the move is not voluntary.

I’ll try to entice psychologists onto future episodes of Time is Sliding to talk, hopefully in simple English, about the Kübler-Ross model and other theories of change such as the mouthful that is the transtheoretical model of change postulated by psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in 1982. Theirs is probably not a model to help understand journeys of change like Phil’s but it seems to be relevant to the changes that people initiate in their own behaviour. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief have been adapted into the “Kübler-Ross Change Curve™” found here.  This can be helpful in gaining an insight into how people might be feeling when change is imposed on them even though not every stage is inevitable. 

Other changes covered in episode 1 of Time Is Sliding include changes since the 1960s in attitudes to race, gender, money, prosperity, the environment and each other. Climate change, computing, population, the modern phenomenon of choice overload such as in coffee shops, corporal punishment and policing are covered too.

Other resources

In the episode, I refer to Our World in Data‘s graph of carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to climate change. Click here to view the graph.

Cambridge University psychology research referred to in the episode: The musical ages of modern man: how our taste in music changes over a lifetime

Paul Dickinson quote: Outrage + Optimism podcast 11th March 2021

Music referred to in the episode (but not played for rights reasons):

Gregorio Allegri: Miserere. Soloist Roy Goodman; Director of Music, David Willcocks and the Choir of King’s College Cambridge. Originally recorded in March 1963.
David Bowie: Life on Mars from the album ‘Hunky Dory’ released December 1971; recorded at Trident Studio, London.
John Lennon: One day (At a time) from the 1973 album, Mind Games.
John Lennon: What you got from the 1974 album Walls and Bridges.
Ral Donner: 1961 song You don’t know what you got (until you lose it).
Joni Mitchell: 1970 song, Big Yellow Taxi originally from the album Ladies of the Canyon.
Blind Faith: 1969 album Blind Faith.
The Beatles: Helter Skelter from the 1968 White Album.

British TV Series referred to:
The Sweeney
Life on Mars
Ashes to Ashes

Coming up

My next blog will expand on the themes of time travel, sci-fi and faith as discussed with Phil in episode 2 of Time is Sliding. Meanwhile, I wish you fun and frolics on life’s helter skelter.  Make sure you take in the scenery as you slide.

One Reply to “Time sliding away: viewing change from cancer’s helter skelter”

  1. What a wonderful episode and a great start to the podcast. Expertly and lovingly curated. I’ve certainly learned a lot and enjoyed listening to the conversation with Phil. Looking forward to the second part.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*