Cancer may not be the super killer it used to be, but you still don’t ever want to get a letter from the hospital with the words ‘not signed to avoid delay’ and ‘abnormal results’ on the same page.
It’s not a fun feeling. It’s terrifying. And quite surreal, making you zoom out of yourself in the doctor’s office, and hover overhead, watching proceedings from the ceiling. Look at the doctor’s amusing cuff links. His large ears. The photographs of his family on his desk.
When an oncologist told me I had Stage 2 cervical cancer, my son was a baby and my daughter a toddler. I remember the sudden sick feeling you get when your stomach drops in a lift, watching the doctor’s mouth moving but not really hearing anything other than the word ‘cancer’. Would I die? How soon? My kids were too young. I needed to tell him that, but his mouth just kept moving. I sat there, staring at him, the word ‘cancer’ roaring in my head.
Fifteen years later, unlike Jade Goody or the Irish women whose diagnoses were so criminally, catastrophically mismanaged, I remain alive. I was lucky — I didn’t ‘battle’ cancer, or ‘win’ any ‘fight’ with it. I am not a cancer ‘survivor’. My cancer experience was entirely passive, quite literally horizontal and unconscious as I underwent surgery to have it cut out of me. It hadn’t spread. It was sheer, dumb luck.
In her book Smile Or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich rejects the tyranny of positive thinking which is foisted upon us when we are diagnosed with cancer: she dismisses pink ribbon culture as particularly infantilising. She has a point — as though having a positive mental attitude is going to stop your rogue cells from dividing, and consuming you alive. As though optimism works like chemo, so that if you express yourself authentically — perhaps by howling or kicking furniture — you are allowing negative energy to take over, instead of bravely smiling, and pinning a pink ribbon to your tumour.
Obviously, if it doesn’t kill you, you make changes. You swap the fags and booze for green juice, maybe get a bit obsessed with nutrition; you become the worried well. And then just the well. You might spend a lot of time on a yoga mat, until you have all but forgotten that you ever had cancer.
It was a long time ago. The memory has faded. The fear is gone.
And then one of the yoga teachers— the one who has never drank or smoked in her life and only drinks filtered water and ferments her own kimchi, brews her own kombucha — is diagnosed.
This is what Sophie Sabbage, herself diagnosed with late-stage terminal cancer in 2014 and still alive and writing books like The Cancer Whisperer, calls a ‘life shock’ — “a moment in time we did not want or expect”.
This is what cancer is — random, indiscriminate, impossible to predict.
Often survivable, but not always, affecting almost one in two of us.
50 - 50.