Yesterday was the sixth 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 three good friends and one family member have been diagnosed with cancer, 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, six 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 six 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.
First published February 15, 2012