The thing about having cancer was that it was pretty obvious what was going on. I had been feeling fairly lousy, and had been in pain, for a good while leading up to my official diagnosis. I had even been in hospital, a sure sign that I wasn’t making it up. From fellow parents at the school gate, to my colleagues, to the queue at the greengrocer’s, there wasn’t a soul who wasn’t in on the secret.
But chipper was different. My colleagues knew, the ones who saw me each day. And my close family. But apart from that, nobody. Compared with chipper, talking about cancer was a breeze. ‘You might not have heard,’ I would hear myself say. ‘I’ve got cancer.’ Once my treatment started I let my looks do the talking for me. ‘Haven’t you got a lovely shaped head?’ people would say, stroking me.
With chipper the outward signs are not so obvious. They weren’t even obvious to me. Partly this is because when you have chipper it has a tendency to play around with what you might normally call your common sense. Even if you are in tremendous pain and know that you do not normally walk around hoping nobody has seen you tearing up as you come into work, you persuade yourself (or, rather, your mind does) that this is in fact quite normal and is probably just a phase. Or the weather. Or autumn (even if it isn’t…) And so you go on being chipper. Hoping it will pass. Hoping it might just be something that is explainable and quickly solved, like not eating enough bananas. But hoping most of all that you won’t have to talk about it.
Which is ironic really, because that is the one thing which in my case made all the difference. With chipper I had to talk about it first to learn that I was unwell. I went to see someone, who said I should see my GP, now. That first person, she did me a big favour. We talked about chipper but, critically, she did not shy away from using the word depression. I remember sitting in my friend’s car afterwards feeling both relieved and oddly elated. Now it was official, out. And, amazingly, the world had conspired not to end because we had spoken. It was going to be OK. I was going to be OK.
With cancer, on the other hand, I talked about nothing else for ten months, and realised only when I was ‘better’ that I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what I’d been through. ‘I think you need to talk to someone,’ my consultant said to me, at our last meeting. She handed me a yellow photocopied flyer with the words ‘Free Counselling’ in bold letters. ‘But I am not depressed,’ I thought. Reading my mind she said: ‘Everyone thinks that. But do go and see her, even if it’s once. You’ll be glad you did.’ Ten months later, I was still talking and still glad, amazed to discover I had so much to say.
The odd thing is, mostly we did not talk about cancer. I told her my particular story, of course: the unusual way I presented; my misdiagnosis of relapse; my prolonged treatment ‘just to make sure.’ But that wasn’t what we talked about. We talked about my family, about language, about what she called ‘spiralling’, that sudden swirl of thoughts, like a gust of wind round the corner of a building, that can knock you off your feet from nowhere. Mostly we talked about that. And about relapse prevention. Not cancer relapse (there is no safety net there), but spiral-relapse.
Which, years later, is what I am still learning now. Or re-learning, with some new words and ideas thrown in. It’s good. I like learning languages, the names for things. I’m not good at them, but I have always liked the process. This is a chair. I sit in the chair. This is the door. I come through the door. I am happy to sit in the chair. I sit in the chair and we talk. We talk.