Coping with not having cancer

Not having cancer is turning into a real pain in the arse.

Last year I found out I had cancer. Bummer! I got better, and other than a foot-long scar and an increased determination to be selfishly happy, I’m the same as I was before.

But it’s a pain in the arse to not have cancer any more. It’s not that I want sympathy – far from it, sympathy makes me feel very uncomfortable. But having had cancer once upon a time means that people look at me differently from now on. They assume I’m rotting away from the inside, or that there’s something about me which might be contagious, or that my body is somehow “wrong”. My body is wrong in lots of ways, as anybody who’s seen me naked can attest, but most of my wrongness is caused by Hobnobs.

In case you’re from overseas and don’t know what Hobnobs are, they’re an oaty biscuit with a delicious topping made from chocolate and crack cocaine. They’re also the gnarliest of the biscuits: you can dunk them in hot tea for hours at a time, and they retain their structural integrity. Only the Bourbon Cream is anywhere near as tough. For the benefit of Johnny Foreigner, the Bourbon Cream is a sandwich made up of two crunchy biscuits, bonded together with a layer of what might be cat sick.

Enough biscuit news, back to cancer. Yes, I’m missing a kidney, but loads of people only have one functioning kidney and never even notice. There’s a fair chance you’ve got a knackered one, or maybe even an excess of kidneys. It’s not uncommon.

Because of my many personality failings I barely know any other humans. But even amongst the tiny group of people who can bear me (mainly employees, which surely doesn’t count, because I have to pay them to hang out with me) – even amongst those few people, I know one guy who has 6 kidneys and another with 8. And that’s somewhat lavish, given that I’m living proof than more than one is totally unnecessary. If I was missing two kidneys I’d be worried, but missing one is no worse than losing a middle toe: unsightly, unexpected and requires explanation, but it doesn’t really impact on your life.

The worse thing about not having cancer, though, is having to mix with people who do. It’s not them, it’s me. No, really, it is. They hate me.

I’m taking part in a clinical trial to find out if it’s safe for former cancer patients to take a drug that might (fingers crossed) cure a load of kidney cancers that currently only have a surgical solution. My cancer was one of those – if the surgery had failed there was, at the time, bugger all they could do. I was lucky mine was operable, in spite of being enormous. But this drug offers the hope that surgery might not be necessary, and I’m doing my little part in checking for side-effects. I’ve been doing it for a year, and it’s perfectly safe so far. But it means every 6 weeks I have to go to Christies Cancer hospital for a scan.

And that’s where the trouble starts.

I roll up to Christies at 9am, and they plonk down a vat of putrid liquid that they’ve tried to disguise with chemical that I’m sure is Agent Orange, or possibly Draino. I have to drink 2 small cups of it, and then another cup every 15 minutes for 2 hours. It’s got radium in it, so after the scan is over I’m made to chew a chalky and nasty iodine tablet to soak up the radioactivity, and although it’s (sadly) never happened yet, I’m always warned that the drink might make my poo glow in the dark. I’ll keep you informed about my motions.

Then they make me dress in a humiliatingly arseless hospital gown, shove a canula into my arm, and sit me in a waiting room with 8-10 cancer patients who are waiting for scans too. And we wait, often for 2 hours.

If you’re in a cancer hospital, cancer is the sole topic of conversation. They’re like those old women who start every discussion with the words “I’m 87, you know”. There’s a polite silence when a new person arrives, but within 15 seconds somebody asks “What’s wrong with you, then?”.

They don’t want to know what’s wrong with you really; they just want an excuse to tell everybody what’s wrong with them. They should blog, it’s much less intrusive.

There follows a litany of melanomas, carcinomas, lymphomas and sarcomas. It would scare the bejeesus out of me if I wasn’t aware that 90% of all cancers are now completely curable. This ward is full of the exceptions, but it takes presence of mind to remember that, and not to suddenly freak out that every human on the planet is currently host to a massive tumour

They take it in turns to tell their story, and everyone says the same things:

  • The NHS is a marvel, Britain’s greatest achievement, and we’ll be lost without it (are you listening Andrew Lansley, you callous cunt?)
  • Christies cancer hospital, in particular, is a cathedral of care, filled with love and genius, and performing miracles at every moment
  • Life is a good thing, worth fighting for, and they are determined to live every second

If you’re depressed, go and hang out there. I know I sound like Fight Club, but you’ve never met a bunch of people so determined to have fun. I think that in life we all need something to kick against, and cancer is certainly that. In energises your spirit in some way – I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, not even Thatcher (which is saying something); but it has a remarkable ability to focus your attention on what’s good about life. In case you’re wondering, what’s so good about life is almost everything.

And in most cases, cancer makes you laugh a lot more. Odd, but true. The other patients in the waiting room tell their stories with excellent black humour, giggling at their imminent death or the grisly prospect of a month sat in a chemo chair being carefully, skillfully poisoned to within an inch of their life. They’re brave and honest and clear-eyed and keen to laugh.

But sometimes it stops being funny. Last time there was a guy sitting opposite me, telling his tale. I’d say he was 75 or 80, with male-pattern-baldness and thin, whispy hair lingering above his ears. Sunken eyes, and his hoarse, cracked voice was barely a whisper. He had no teeth, and his skin is like tissue paper. He told us all, with not a hint of self-pity, that he hoped to make it to his next birthday, because it’s an important one.

He’ll be 40.

It’s such a shock to find out that this 80-year-old geezer is actually a couple of years younger than me that I was still slightly speechless when it was my turn to tell everyone what type of cancer is gobbling me up, and I didn’t take enough care to explain things carefully. I just told them truth: there’s nothing wrong with me.

I tried to laugh it off, gave an apologetic shrug and hoped they’d move on. But judging by the looks they gave me, I would have been better to announce that I’d deliberately flambée’d their grandmother and reversed over their dog.

In the normal world, whether you like it or not, you have a disgust of cancer. When somebody tells you they have it, you shrink away from them, avoid them. They remind you that death is at the end of the road, and you don’t want to know that. But I remind these mortally ill people that life is at the other end of the road, and I don’t think they want to know.

They looked at me like I was a fraudster, which is how I feel every time I go to Christies. No matter what’s wrong with you, you can always find somebody worse off in a hospital. But in Christies every single person has a variation of the same thing: their body is turning against them. But not me. I’m fine. I know I’m doing my bit to help them all, but that’s hard to explain. The truth is, I feel like I don’t belong, and am just here to gobble up resources and mock their death with my life.

I have rarely felt so unwelcome. It’s not easy to not have cancer.

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2 thoughts on “Coping with not having cancer

  1. People have “an excess of kidneys”, really? I had no idea! Where do they fit in the body?

    I always thought that if I was in a hostage situation and I had to give up a body part, it would be my middle toe. This post, having confirmed it is possible to live without the middle toe, has reasurred me that it would be the correct digit to lose.

    I definitely have not shrunk away from or avoided people with cancer. Especially people I love. Or any of the animals that I have known and loved that have cancer. But I will admit that cancer is a thing that fascinates, frightens and yes, at times, disgusts me.

    Well done for doing the trials, it’s so important. My Grandpa did trials for a drug three years ago, when he was past hope of recovery, which was a brave and selfless thing to do. Those very drugs he was testing are now being used with great success on my mother-in-law and I guess lots of other people too, which makes me proud.

    1. I figure every single piece of medical or surgical knowhow we have today is a result of some poor bugger being a guinea pig. It seems churlish to benefit from all the expertise available without volunteering to help with the next generation of drugs. OK, sure, I’ve grown gills and a tail, my tongue has turned black and I smell curiously of linseed oil, but it’s a small price to pay.

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