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
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.
Today is the seventh anniversary of my diagnosis with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL), an aggressive cancer of the lymphatic system. I was told I was in remission from this disease in October 2006.
Here is what I have learned about cancer since my diagnosis.
1. As a culture we still prefer to use war metaphor when we talk about cancer. Witness all the tributes to the plucky ‘battles’ of celebrities and ‘fighting’ the disease, nearly always in the past tense, as though we are World War II Spitfire pilots dashing off to our planes to give Jerry hell.
2. My attitude to cancer is still partly superstitious. When I was diagnosed with NHL I assumed, irrationally, that I had used up all of the bad luck of my friends and family. I was wrong. Since I entered remission several friends and one family member have been diagnosed with cancer, more than one of whom has died. If your life has not yet been touched by cancer the chances are it will be. There is no way you can prepare for this.
3. Eventually your friends, family and colleagues will stop using the word ‘cancer’ around you. Eventually you will follow them. I promised myself this would never happen but now surprise myself by referring to my cancer as ‘when I was poorly’ or ‘when I was ill’. When you meet friends you have not seen in a long time they ask how you are with fierce concern in their eyes. But they do not use the word ‘cancer’.
4. I am not angry that I had cancer, though I understand that many people do not share this attitude. The closest to anger I get is when I reflect that my being ill forced my children to grow up more quickly than they would perhaps have done otherwise. There is no way of knowing if this statement is true. So much of what we say about cancer is not empirical, though we pretend it is.
5. You find out who you friends are when you are diagnosed with cancer. These are the people who show up, offer lifts and leave tins of brownies on your doorstep. The people who write, the people who make CDs. And those who, seven years later, still say ‘How are you?’ or ‘Tell me how you are.’
6. Once cancer touches your life you are never done with it. From the overheard plotlines of soap opera characters to the death and relapse of close friends, cancer is never far away.
5. Even if you have survived cancer you do not think about it all of the time. You compartmentalise; and, as Buddhists say, you practise acceptance.
7. When you are told you are in remission from cancer you do not feel like celebrating. Not one of my friends or acquaintances has held a party on being given this news. Personally speaking I am no nearer to cracking open the champagne even seven years after my original diagnosis. My gratitude at still being alive is deeply felt, closely matched by my relief. Neither of these emotions approximates to a celebration.
You can read a review of Love for Now here
You can buy Riddance, my book of poems about my experience of cancer, here