Dear Cancer

Dear Cancer

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Fifteen years, to be precise. To the day. Amazing to realise it suddenly, like a gust of wind knocking into me as I step out into the rain to fetch some logs. A Tuesday, as I recall. Bitterly cold. Dry, sunny. The ward warm. The head spinning information of it all, the nurse rummaging for tissues for Tatty in Felicity’s office. Jörn with his arm around my shoulder. The magazines covering every surface in the waiting room.

The same office eight months later when she told me you had gone. A yellow leaflet with the email of a counsellor. Jörn still swearing at everyone; everyone still loving him.

You did leave, she was right. The odds she had given me – 83%, she said, not 80 or 85, I always loved the precision of that – turned out well. And though I have been certain at least twice that you were returning, still you have not come back. I am amazed by that, and grateful. Most days I do not even think about you.

Only, I do. I think about you a lot. I have written two books about you (possibly three). You are in everything I do, because I am still being touched by what you did (are doing) to me, even though you have left and are no longer in my body. Those ghost-pains down my right side, just above my kidneys (we thought it was stones). The hours I still lose wondering if you are there and if you were there, how would I live my life then, having been known by you already?

For someone with no presence, you have a long shadow. In my life, my body, my mind, and in the lives of those I love whose bodies you also seem to need. People used to ask me, was I angry that I had you. No, I said. But I was sad that my children had to know about you at such a young age. I am angry, though. I am angry that you took away my friends and are trying to take away others. I am angry that we still talk about fighting you, as though we have individual responsibility for making ourselves better. Tomorrow, next week, next month, a person we all love will die having fought a ‘battle’ with you. For one so common, you have so much power. We can be cured from having you, but we cannot cure our addiction to needing to talk about you as a battle to the death.

At least we no longer refer to you by your initial. At least we now say cancer. A doctor friend of mine says the next word we need to deal with is depression. (I know about that too, thanks in part to you.) I am no expert, but think he may be right. When I was ill with you I talked about you all the time. Then wrote about you all the time. Writing and talking about depression is much harder for me. (We can maybe talk about the reasons another time.) But you, cancer, you were the one who changed everything. You were the one, you see. You changed the way I read, the way I believe, the way I am in my body, my family. I still stand by what I said: you made me pay attention. Though you taught me more than I ever want to know, I still don’t think I can say thank you.

You don’t need to write back, that wouldn’t be kind.


  1. I’m so glad for your continuing health and your out loud conversation with cancer, Anthony. My sister’s moving through treatment right now and I’ll send her your post here for the hope and also the honesty it contains. As for depression, I’m looking forward to hearing whatever you’d have to say on the topic and hoping it’s okay that I’m including a link to Krista Tippett’s conversation with fellow travelers on that particular journey. May it support your own travels:

    Our world is a better place with your words in it. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Mary Ellen. It is always a treat to hear from you. I hope this helps your sister. I did not know that On Being episode, and will listen later this week. As for depression, I have skirted around it for a long time, but it is what I am working on now. With deep thanks to you as ever, Anthony

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful piece, Ant.
    Measured, chastening, moving.
    I can’t believe that it’s fifteen years.
    Thanks for the love of life and reverence towards language in all those poems since then.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Anthony – brilliant, wonderful, and kind, too, of you to share this with us. May we each and all see the gifts in all we receive.

    Joanna NicciTina Free

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Haunting reflections. Did you find any gifts in any part of it? For many years I disliked that idea but since my elder daughter was sucked in to the vortex of anorexia in 2014 I’ve had time to reflect and reframe the events and come to see that when some of the top soil was removed, I found some very precious things(*). She was nearly three years in to a medical degree when she realised she was not mentally or physically well enough to continue. She needed a lot of encouragement and support to give up everything she had been working towards and accept a place in an eating disorders unit. She was there for over 6 months. She discharged herself against medical advice, returned to retake her 3rd year, completed her degree in another 2 years (she was still not at all “well”) but nearly 4 years on, she has found her calling, working… in the haematology department of a large hospital. I remember very clearly that she said working with these cancer patients, especially those her age, had “recalibrated” her view of what it meant to be ill; it has been life changing for her too! We remain haunted by a close encounter with a incomprehensible and powerful mental illness and I have written (and continue to feel the need to write) about what happened – about the meaning of “support” ,”recovery” and about “what matters” and also about unearthing (*)much deeper, clearer and more meaningful lines of communication between us; we had end of life conversations with her that we never expected to have to have as we had reached the point where we’d accepted that she was unlikely to recover – it’s not even hard for me to say that as that is where we were. She is forever changed and so are we – but overall, I’d say that we have all gained something from what happened. We continue with our lives wound round each other but the illness is never far from our thoughts so I am not surprised to see you write about your experiences in this way – so much of what you wrote resonated with me very strongly (can’t you tell!); our lives were broken but the repairs are beautiful in many ways and we do cherish that, strange as that may seem. There’s no need to shy away or apologise for writing about your illness, mining it, holding it up to the light – isn’t this what writers should do – write about those things that are hard to put into words?

    Liked by 2 people

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