Cancer. We have to fight it. Destroy it. It has waged war on us and we have to respond by throwing everything we have at it. It's a battle of hearts and minds (so stay positive, folks!)
That this, the most commonplace cancer lexicon is bollocks, is well documented by me and many wiser cancer commentators. First and foremost, if it’s a battle and I lose, what does that say about me? I didn’t fight hard enough? What an insult. If it really was a battle, if it really was in my control then I would arm-up to the nines. I’d weaponize. I’d transform myself into a bad-ass cancer hunter and this skirmish would already be done and dusted, thanks. I am a formidable opponent and I don’t see a bunch of rogue cells having much of a chance against my super-powers, let alone the prayers of half of West Belfast. But the Nuisance is a disease and it will be controlled and vanquished by modern medicine, not by the love of my family, my will-power, God, or a fruitarian diet.
But I want to reclaim the battle metaphor. I’m nearly a year into my acquaintance with the Nuisance, and my war is not with the disease. It’s with the treatment, and it is with myself, for mastery over this strange new terrain which has become my life. Yes, obviously Cancer the disease sucks. It kills you, right? But the truth is most cancers don’t start doing the really bad, painful stuff till near the end (stealthy bugger that it is). In the meantime, treatments for cancer are generally worse than the disease itself. An unalloyed misery, torture in so many different ways (and I know I’m one of the lucky ones, so forgive my self-indulgence here). And the thing about the treatment? It’s elective. You CHOOSE to put yourself through it, to be opened up by a surgeon, to get hooked up to chemo, to be zapped by radiowaves, or to suffer the sleeplessness and hot flushes which seem to be de rigeur with drugs like Tamoxifen. Discomfort, misery and depression today equals life down the line, whether it’s a complete cure or a few more years or months with your beloveds. So it’s a price worth paying. But unless you’ve been through it personally, it’s hard to understand the many variegations of crap which cancer treatment offer. And they need chronicling, because it’s only by naming our foes that we battlers understand what a miracle it is that we are still standing in this war at all.
At the beginning, a diagnosis is received, statistics and prognosis for survival follow. The battle begins with the declaration of war, not cancer versus us, but for the patient who must decide whether to tool up for the fight. The first choices are made. Nerves are steeled; but at this stage it’s a journey into the unknown so the choice is a no brainer.
Treatment begins. Radiotherapy is not part of my personal battle plan. Neither is a transplant, nor hormone replacement drugs. I’m told all these offer their own, particular miseries. But I can tell you about chemotherapy. First, there are lots of different sorts of chemo. With some you just take tablets. With others (like mine) you get hooked up to a slow drip-drip of a pump you carry around for 48 hours. Some make you bald, others don’t. But whatever the Docs say, there isn’t a “good” chemo. There are just degrees of bleurgh. Chemotherapy is like a particularly inept vigilante marauding through the body on the hunt for cancer cells. He shoots, he kills! Oh no. More often than not what he has slaughtered is a perfectly healthy cell just going about its taste-creating, nausea-controlling, body-hydrating business. Chemo is all about this clumsy collateral damage and how to control it: hence the phalanx of steroids, anti-nausea pills and so on, each of which bring their own fun side-effects. But what I hadn’t reckoned with was the mental stuff. My foxy vigilante seems particularly adept at shooting down serotonin, so that 4 days in, chemotherapy replaces my soul with a shrivelled, black void sucking all the goodness from life. And my little grey cells seem to be equally often mistaken for carcinoma. So I am sucked into the foxy void with only This Morning for company: hardly a fair fight. If I could at least read! Half way through the fortnight, I emerge from this misery like clockwork. But with each cycle the physical and emotional scar tissue deepens. I elect to return, but only just.
Surgery at least provides variation. A chemo holiday! Hurrah! And unlike chemo, all surgeries are by no means equal. For me, bowel surgery was pretty much a breeze. Liver surgery seemed to bring a tedious new complication every week and it is only now, 5 months later, that I can say I feel recovered. But what all surgery has in common is pain. They cut you open, and it’s not surprising it hurts. But with the passage of time what I dread most isn’t that, it’s the shit they use to make the pain go away. The time spent submerged in dark, dark morphine hallucinations (mine featured Las Vegas show-girls and scenes of the Rwandan genocide. An unholy combination I could do without re-visiting). And pain educates the body to pain. It gives a taste of what may be to come if the battle has to continue.
The brain travels this path along with the body. The war is emotional as well as physical, as the self makes sense of each foray into the unknown. As we work out how much of this fearful battleground we can cope with. As we establish how on earth to live with a question mark hanging over the future. Not just whether we have one – most of the time the idea of not having a long-term is too big to grasp. But the uncertainty of next week, tomorrow, this afternoon – will I be up to spending the whole day with the kids? Can I cook dinner tonight? Should I get excited about forthcoming mini-break – or will that just make disappointment more crushing if I can’t go? The Nuisance demands a mastery of self which still floors me. Half of life is sunlight uplands, quotidian normality. And then suddenly the fear comes, my stealthy assailant. And I’m trapped by anxiety about what next. The battleground here is familiar to me, pre-nuisance, and I know to many others. But now it goes on, and on, and I have a feeling that the end of treatment will not bring a ceasefire. Instead a tedious stalemate, a tense no-mans-land to inhabit between my check-ups and scans.
The point of all this is not to moan (though there has been a fair bit of that, I grant you). Or to give myself a massive pat on the back for still being here (*gives self massive pat on the back anyway*).The point is to say that whilst I can’t determine my future, or what the nuisance decides to do next, I can determine how I face it. It’s a choice, and I choose to keep showing up for the fight, armoured up and shield ready.