I wrote here a couple of days ago about my aversion to using war metaphor to describe cancer. Judging from the number of comments, retweets and blog stats this is an issue that clearly resonates with a lot of people, both those who have/have had cancer and those who have not.
Thank you to all of you who have retweeted my post and got in touch via Twitter.
I like a discursive argument as much as the next person. But sometimes the thing needs saying in the shape of a story or a song. This is what I have tried to do with the poem ‘I am Fighting’, below.
When my chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma finally came to an end in 2006 I slowly began to re-engage with reading and writing poetry again, not having been able to concentrate on more than the sports pages for six months.
Until I had and was treated for cancer I had unconsciously accepted the war metaphor so readily used in the culture. After six months of encouragement to ‘fight’ the disease my feelings changed.
I wrote ‘I am Fighting’ in the first batch of poems after I was officially told I was better. You can find it in my book of poems, Riddance, at the front of this website, and also at Worple Press, my publishers.
I am Fighting
I am fighting
we are talking
in a room
across a table
You are waiting
I am fighting
down a corridor
in an armchair
You are reading
in a ward
across the bed
where I am fighting
I am sleeping
I am fighting
I am waking
on the sofa
you are crying
We are walking
through a doorway
I am sitting
now I’m lying
I am sleeping
you are sitting
we are waiting
I am fighting
A friend of mine drew my attention via Twitter this week to an article detailing Robert Peston’s thoughts on his late wife’s cancer. If you have not read it, it’s a compelling read, not least to rediscover the truth that cancer happens to the famous among us as readily as to ordinary mortals.
Full marks to Peston for ‘speaking out’, especially for remarking on the impact of the disease on his children. He is right; cancer does happen to a whole family, not just those receiving treatment. In this sense cancer is mundane, ordinary. Food still needs to be bought and prepared and eaten. The school run waits for no one.
Unfortunately this is the side of cancer still very much missing from everyday portrayals of the disease. We prefer to consume stories about the outward signifiers of cancer, for example articles about ‘brave’ actors being seen for the first time without any hair. Leaving aside the unpleasant vicariousness of sharing in the minutiae of celebrity suffering, the more insidious issue at stake here is the unquestioning acceptance of cancer as a battle.
To be precise, my issue is not with Robert Peston, but rather with unthinking copy editors who insist on inserting ‘battle with’ in front of the word cancer.
I have written here before about the deficiencies of the battle metaphor to describe cancer. Here is a summary:
1. From personal experience I can say after a day on a chemotherapy drip you feel the battle is being done to you, not that you are choosing to fight in one yourself.
2. The notion of a ‘battle’ places the responsibility of getting better upon the patient. This opens up the possibility that it is the ‘strong’ or ‘deserving’ patients who survive having cancer, and that those who die from it are somehow lacking in moral fibre. This is dangerous. (I sometimes wonder if it is not unlike a bizarre mutation of the Protestant work ethic, itself a mutation of the notion of the idea of ‘deserving’ to be ‘saved’.)
3. The idea of cancer as a battle unnecessarily romanticises cancer as a disease when there is nothing romantic about it. Consider the short sentence used at the head of the Peston article, used almost always in the past tense and when someone has just died. Even though the battle has been lost we persist in reassuring ourselves that the deceased has ‘given it everything’. Like so much that is said about cancer by people who have not had it, it is uttered more to reassure the speaker than those having treatment for the disease.
I have great admiration for those who fund research into cancer, the charities and charity runners ‘racing for life’ in the search for a so-called cure to the disease. Long may they all continue. But I do think the discourse around cancer reached a new low recently with the current Race for Life video, which contains the unintentionally hilarious line: ‘Cancer, you prat.’
Is this really the best we can do?
Far more tuthful is the view of those such as Ade Edmondson, who, in an article similar to Peston’s (but with a crucially different outcome) has said the following:
‘So, there is no battle. I hate the word battle. You just get battered with a load of drugs. People want the words “trauma”, “battle” and ” life-changing”, but it’s not a great three-part TV drama full of moments, it’s a long grind, like a slow car crash that will last five years and then, hopefully, we’ll get out.’
This pretty much nails it. But because the battle metaphor is so persuasive and sexy, voices like Edmondson’s are heard all too rarely.
Next time you are tempted to retweet stories such as Peston’s without a moment’s thought, please pause to question the efficacy of cancer as a battle, with its inevitable logic of valour, winners and losers. To misquote Orwell, in the battle against cancer as a war metaphor I do not need to ask myself which side I am on.
Nine days after I was told that my chemotherapy treatment was not working in April 2006 the doctors discovered the mistake of the radiologist who originally reported on my scan.
April 28, 2006
What is it like, being told you are going to live? You hug your mother, who cries. You phone your wife who goes ‘Yipee!’. You drink coffee and eat pastries to celebrate. You tell your cleaning ladies, who are so pleased (they thought you looked better than last week). You tell your daughter, who is off school with a sore throat. She says ‘Why are hospitals so stupid?’ You receive many phone calls. But what is it like?
It is like watching the light fade from a room, sunlight making patches on the house opposite, the pink tips of apple blossom daring to poke through into the same, as you have done a thousand times before. But this time you know you’ll be doing it again, next year, and probably, the year after that.
It is dreaming up something profound to say about Kylie Minogue’s post-treatment haircut, and about the newspaper coverage of it, but resisting the urge. Ditto the obituaries you read this week of the man who invented the CT scan and the man who discovered a cure for leukaemia in children. Life is too short, you tell yourself. From now on I will write what I want.
It is darting in and out of the office to check who has sent you the latest congratulatory email.
And remembering that Chelsea only need a point against United at the Bridge tomorrow to win the league.
It is feeling that you might start reading poetry again.
It is breathing in deeply on the doorstep in the sunshine, and, though it induces a coughing fit, being grateful for breath at all.
Seven years ago this is what happened halfway through my treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went for a midway scan to report on the shrinkage of my tumour and was given the wrong results.
My tumour was in fact responding well to the chemotherapy treatment I was being given.
But the radiologist who analysed my scan pictures somehow looked at them the wrong way round, so mistakenly saw evidence of my tumour growing. I was told this meant it was not responding to treatment, and that a new, much harsher, course of chemotherapy would have to be put in place for me.
My family and I lived with the ‘truth’ of this misdiagnosis for nine days until the mistake was uncovered. In that time we did our best to commit to ordinary life as best we could, doing the school run, eating and watching crap telly together, as you do. I do know I began writing my funeral service. I even broke the habit of a lifetime and discussed money with my wife.
As my ward doctor told me: ‘If you’re given a shit pack of cards, those are the ones you play with.’
During this time I was glad to come across this poem by Patrick Kavanagh. It became a kind of touchstone, helping me to come to terms with my forthcoming oblivion in language that was even more direct than my doctors’.
Wet Evening in April
The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.