Letter from Simon Kelner: Should we really be so touchy about the 'Big C'?


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The Independent Online

Unless you take an active interest in the sports pages, this is a story that may have passed you by.

The chief executive of Manchester City, Garry Cook (declaration of interest: this is a club dear to my heart, and I know Mr Cook) is in hot water over an email he is alleged to have sent to the mother (and, at the time, negotiating agent) of one of his players which appeared to make light of the fact that she was suffering from cancer. I won't go into some of the murkier details of the saga - for instance, why an email sent 11 months ago should suddenly emerge in the public domain - but one thing is clear: cancer remains a strictly taboo subject, and, should it be treated in any way insensitively or light-heartedly, the moral panic button goes off like the clappers.

That is not to judge on the rights and wrongs of this particular case, but I wonder whether we should be quite so touchy. I speak as someone who has been afflicted with cancer myself, who has lost one of his best friends to the disease, and has another close friend in the midst of treatment. A number of funny things happened to me on the way to the operating theatre, not the least of which was a conversation with my specialist in which he said it was very unlikely that they'd find something really, really bad. "But you only deal in percentages," I said. "Exactly what are the chances?" "Let's just say it's highly improbable," he replied. I persisted. "And as a percentage?" I asked, expecting him to say one in a thousand, or even a million. "Oh, I don't know," he said, with an air of studied insouciance. "Maybe 50-50." I have lived to tell that tale, and the one of a friend, known for his bluntness, who heard I was in hospital and texted thus: "Wot you got?" Getting into the spirit of things, I texted back "Cancer!" and for good measure added a smiley face. I didn't hear back from him for a while.

But my favourite story on the subject concerns a famous Liverpool footballer of the 1990s. At the time, journalists used to travel with the players to matches in Europe, and a certain local newspaper reporter was an ever-present on these trips. One day, he was no longer there. The player asked one of his colleagues what had happened to him. "It's a tragedy," he said, and added gravely, "the Big C." "What?" said the player, visibly shaken. "He drowned?"