This is a momentous week. It marks the tenth anniversary of the day I was told I had cancer.
To use Mark Robinson’s phrase, it wasn’t like in the adverts. I wasn’t in the wilderness in a hospital gown in a gale with a nurse walking towards me calling my name. And suddenly on a bench in a hospital corridor. I was at home, looking out of my window at a man walking past my house, oblivious to my story. A car was being parked. There was birdsong. It was a Friday.
I had been in and out of hospital during the preceding weeks, having tests, and then more tests, to explain the rather odd and persistent pain that my body had chosen to wake up with on January 1st. Looking back I am certain my GP sussed what was going on before the hospital did. He booked me an urgent ultrasound scan which he warned me would take six weeks to materialise. ‘Do you mind going private?’ he said. I said I did, and I didn’t. I had the scan and would be seen in a week’s time, across the road, in the NHS. The phone went that evening inviting me to come in for a CT scan the very next day.
And that was when I knew.
I knew nothing, of course. I had heard of CT scans from the plot lines of dramas on television, but did not know what they meant. This was not a plot line. This was life, very speeded up.
A friend who was a former nurse told me to ask just one question: ‘Solid or liquid? If it’s liquid it won’t be cancer. Probably a polyp. Solid, on the other hand…’ This was the first of several thousand very direct conversations during that year.
I asked my GP the same question, and for the first time his eyes were tempted to look away from me.
And that was when I knew.
The doctor who wasn’t in a raging gale in the wilderness told me she had my notes somewhere and please would I hold. I said I would hold. Then, thinking I couldn’t hear her, I heard her say ‘It’s Mr Wilson.’ A pause. ‘Yes.’
And I knew then.
Her voice, one I can still hear now, its locale embedded in every meshed vowel. A cough. ‘Mr Wilson? Hello.’ Her name again. (When was that car ever going to get parked?) ‘Mr Wilson, it is as we thought, I’m afraid. It is lymphoma. You have lymphoma.’ And then she gave me some instructions about where I was to go and who I was to see on Tuesday, which would be Valentine’s day. And then she said she was sorry and goodbye. And everything went very quiet.
I sat down for a moment, in the quiet, this moment that was mine alone to experience, alone. Somewhere in the house was my son. My wife was not yet home. My daughter was on a school trip to Germany.
I sat for a moment, then resumed reading the Guardian review of a new Miles Davis box set, something I knew I would never look at again, much less buy. There was no gale, no wilderness, no nurse.
I waited to hear my wife’s key in the lock before making the next move. I whispered the news into her neck in the hall and we held each other and cried. Not for the first time that year I heard myself say ‘I’m so sorry.’
And then we went into planning mode. We told our son. I rang my parents. And I made a tour of the neighbours, whom we would come to rely on for so many enormous-tiny things in the coming months. Most of them were eating, I remember, or about to. Our small corner of the world went into purdah. Above everything we wanted the news of my diagnosis to stay private so that it would not reach my daughter before we had seen her.
Luckily it was the era, impossible to imagine now, before Facebook and Twitter. I think the family owned one mobile phone, mine, which she had taken with her, for emergencies.