Cancer is awesome. Ok, that isn’t entirely true. I sincerely doubt anyone is going to rush into your office this morning with a big beaming smile and tell you the new addition to their family is a six pound bouncing bundle of carcinoma.
As someone who has been battling colon cancer since just before my 26th birthday back in 2009, and is still fighting it today, at 28, I feel I’m in the distinctly unprivileged position to tell you that cancer is, for most people, the single hardest thing they will ever face apart from a screening of Twilight (funny story about that later).
It impacts your family, friends, relationships, mental state, finances, your entire long and short term plans and obviously your health. And even when you do beat it – there should be no ifs, buts or maybes for the cancer crew, you will beat it – it will never ever leave you. It will set up shop in the recesses of your mind, tormenting you day after day.
There is no ticker tape parade at the end of cancer. God isn’t going to reach down from the heavens with the keys to your brand new, shiny life. In fact, sometimes the most we can hope for is simply remission and an all too brief reprieve from the nastiness as we try picking up our lives where we left off.
The biggest battle for me will never be the cancer itself, and certainly not the chemo. Surprisingly, I was able to deal with the sickness, nausea and weak-as-a-kitten-ness relatively well. Vomiting into a bucket for eight straight hours, replacing fluids only to regurgitate them straight back up wasn’t a picnic, but it wasn’t as difficult as some of the emotional issues the situation kicked up. The hardest part is coping. Staying focused and driven to beat your own body rebelling against you, to laugh and smile and live your life while the cancer follows you around like a black cloud, at work, at Christmas dinner, on a sunny beach on holiday. It’s the proverbial devil sitting on your shoulder, whispering poison in your ear. At times, it’ll make you a paranoid, emotional, angry, secretive mess
The only way to keep your chin up is to try and envision the positives, no matter how trivial. There are days when everything else seems bleak, but using the following techniques genuinely help me turn things around. So, here are my ten favourite things about having cancer (in reverse order):
Becoming a new person
I don’t mean in a hippy kind of way, I mean genuinely a new person. There are lots of creative ways you will find to avoid subjects you don’t want to discuss. Once after chemotherapy, I had horrific bruising down one of my arms. I was on a bus and a nosy old lady asked me what was wrong, so I told her I was a heroin addict. I’ve never seen someone switch seats faster. When a guy in the park asked me irritably why I wasn’t at work that day, I replied that I was waiting for my pigeon friends to bring me my slippers. He left me alone pretty sharpish.
A tough one to do every day, but laughing at your situation is a darn sight better than crying over it 24/7. When I first told two of my friends in the pub that I had colon cancer, and could sense that they weren’t exactly taking it too well, I suggested that I should get a brown cancer ribbon made up. I also to this day blame my condition on watching Twilight, because I never had cancer before I saw that film. This lead to my friend having a T-shirt made with the immortal slogan ‘TWILIGHT GAVE ME CANCER’ printed on it. I wear it to chemo every time I go.
Playing 'the cancer card'
There are certain situations we want to get out of but know we’ll never have a good enough excuse; the peripheral friend’s birthday, the obscure relative’s wedding. One of the immense joys of being part of the tumour troop, is that no one ever questions you when you play the cancer card. Party getting boring? Cancer Card! Losing at Scrabble and don’t want anyone to realise you can’t make a word with three X’s and a Q? Cancer Card! Secretly out of breath on a walk in the New Forest because you don’t do enough cardio? Cancer Card! The possibilities are endless.
Another excuse to make smokers uncomfortable
Want to not-so-subtly encourage your friends to stop smoking? Accuse them of contributing to your cancer. Cough around them uncontrollably, cry about how people don’t value their health, use any trick you can. You are their new nicotine patch, and they will love you for it. Or burn you.
A healthy dose of reality
Cancer is the bucket of ice water down your trousers that will help you realise there are problems in your life that you need to address when you are better. Conversely, there is nothing like a life threatening disease to make you finally see that your housemate’s habit of leaving the washing up sponge in a sink full of stagnant water overnight isn’t really that annoying. Maybe.
Loss of all your inhibitions and shame
Once you’ve had more hands up your backside than Sooty and Sweep combined, and seen your insides on a screen in front of four female nurses, whilst in the foetus position on a cold table, with a gown that only covers fifty percent of your dignity, you’re not going to be that bothered about putting on a few pounds.
Appreciating who and what you are
Cancer picked you, unfortunately. You won the crap lottery. I’m sorry about that. But that doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you’re not all the things you were before, you’re just someone with a compromised immune system that is poisoning themselves in order to fight their body’s weird genetic quirks. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that when you come out the end of it, you’ll be a better person.
Knowing you will beat it...
This is probably the toughest of the bunch to visualise, but when you get some good news, you'll know you can beat it, whatever prognosis you’ve been given. Keep that good news ball and run with it, because that euphoric feeling is one of the best there is. You’ll be Arnold Schwarzenegger to cancer’s terrorists, David Cameron to cancer’s public opinion, and Lindsay Lohan to cancer’s drink-drive charges. You’ll be untouchable.
...and knowing if you do, you can beat anything
What’s stopping you from doing anything you’ve ever wanted to do now (except the laws of physics and the legal system, maybe)? Your life is now a gift, something you might want to not waste sitting around watching X-Factor or Twilight (God, do I hate that film). Perhaps it’s time to take stock of what you really want from life?
And number 1, the best coping mechanism of all, and a moment to be 100 per cent serious...
Finding out who your real friends and loved ones are
So, you have how many Facebook friends? Hmmm, interesting. Discounting the week you were first diagnosed, how many of those have sent you an email asking how you are? How many have picked up the phone? Or offered to come to chemo with you? How many have treated you like a normal person? The people who do these things are the ones that really matter.
When I got my latest diagnosis, I was out with one of my best friends. When she found out, she held my hand the rest of the day until I got to see my girlfriend, who cancelled every plan to spend the evening looking after me until my housemate and best friend came home and stayed up most of the night talking with me. When I found out I had to go into hospital for an operation where I was told I had a less than twenty per cent chance of survival, my four best friends came round to see me and listen to all my woes.
My girlfriend is a person who slept on the floor next to me when I was sick after I had been vile to her that evening, who asks me questions about my medication so she knows how best to support me. That’s how I know she’s the person I’m meant to be with. My friends have taken days off work, cooked meals for me, and stayed up all night while I cried and selfishly contemplated giving up. That’s how I know they’ll be my friends for life. My family rallied around me and took care of me and told me they loved me. That’s how I know that blood is thicker than water.
When you don’t have strength to go on, the people who love you the most will fill that vacuum in your reserves and drag you back to your feet. A hug from your mum and dad, an email, text or chat with a friend or a kiss from the person you love most can literally save your life. It has mine, more times than I can count.