Towards the end of my treatment for cancer in 2006 I had one of the most profound conversations of my life. It was with my friend the poet Jean Sprackland, who had travelled across the country just to visit me for the day. She brought stationery from Muji. I still think of this as an act of great kindness and affirmation, not just because of the expense involved, but because my confidence in my writing was at an all-time low.
Shuffling along the Exe at a snail’s pace I told her that along with most of my immune system my chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments seemed to have done a pretty good job of nuking any lingering literary ambition I might still have had.
To give her credit, Jean did not collude with the premise of my complaint.
She looked at me: ‘Except we’re not really ambitious as poets are we really? Only for the next poem. The rest is meaningless.’
Each time I feel myself about to spiral into a funk of panic about my deep lack of profile and my extreme lack of fame and wealth, I remember that walk by the river with Jean, wheezing though I was, and taking smaller steps than before.
Tomorrow the Church Times publishes a combined review of my memoir of cancer Love for Now and Riddance, my book of poems chronicling my treatment and recovery.
I am deeply grateful to Martyn Halsall for his insightful reading of both books.
You can read the review in full here: Review of Riddance and Love for Now, Church Times
Love for Now is at Amazon here
Riddance is at Worple Press here
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.