A few months ago I chose to write an essay about my experience with “…the fight against cancer…”. Since then I have tied myself in knots trying to express the contradictions that have haunted each and every draft, even the one you are reading now.
The subject matter was inspired by a series of lectures that I attended after finishing my initial treatment. One session touched on other peoples perception of cancer. During an open dicussion the subject of ‘fighting’ cancer was raised. It stirred some very strong emotions from the audience, the speaker and me.
Everything that was said made perfect sense; If it is framed as a fight and you aren’t winning then it can give the impression that you did not fight hard enough or you did something wrong…you could be made to feel that somehow it was your fault that you did not beat cancer…to be made to feel that you lost the fight. To lay this on anyone who is suffering from cancer just adds to an already overloaded burden. We all agreed that that to describe our situation in this way was wrong…it is not a fight.
And yet…as I explore my own experience of cancer treatment, spanning the last two years, there has been a constant battle or fight. At first I thought I was fighting cancer but it is only now as I have sat for many long hours…thinking…agonising…and contradicting myself…that I conclude the battle, the fight, is not against cancer but against myself.
Let me try to explain…
At first there was despair. Immediately after diagnosis I needed something to pull me out out of the despair and prepare me for the terrifying thought of treatment. A major part of this was exactly the rhetoric that we all railed against at the previously mentioned lecture. I needed the fight and I needed to feel that I was fighting a monster. For me, at this stage, the ‘Werewolf’ was real and I needed it to be real in order to ‘steel’ me for what was about to come.
Part of my coping mechanism was to approach my treatment in the way that I would approach a complex project at work. I gave the project a name ‘Project Beowulf’ after the Norse hero of the poem. I had my own Grendel to defeat. I had spent my whole life believing I was indestructible, so Beowulf seemed to fit bill perfectly (more about chosing the project name and how that panned out below!).
I was going to beat cancer…I was up for the fight.
At day one I was mainly ignorant of cancer and the treatment. I was scared and preparing for the ‘death sentance’ that I thought I had been given. I needed the fight, without it I would sink in my own self pity.
My mantra was “I am strong, I am powerful and I can beat this thing”. This was my ‘battle call’.
The mantra motivated me when I needed it the most. In some ways I needed to feel like there was something to fight to bristle that bit of determination. I imagined the chemotheapy attacking the tumour, killing the cancer a cell at a time. I imagined the cancer in the lymph nodes withering as the radiation burned it. Make no mistake this was a fight and one that I was emotionally involved in. But in reality it was the treatment that was fighting the cancer, not me. If it didn’t work it was because the cancer was too far advanced for the drugs or radiation…if it didn’t work it wasn’t my fault…I had done everything I could to help the treatment by eating well, exercising and by keeping positive.
I needed this strength for myself and the people around me. It wasn’t ‘a front’ it was armour plating.
A couple of chemo cycles in and I started to question what it was that I was fighting. By this time I had settled my family, friends and work with the Project Beowulf approach. I had a standard ‘patter’, a series of standard responses, that rolled off the tongue, well rehersed.
How I feel now and and how I felt when I was diagnosed are worlds apart and that is perhaps why this has been such a difficult essay.
Sat in a cafe in Blackheath with eggs on toast in front of me and the rain pouring down outside I have had a moment of clarity. I needed to be wrong in those early days to get me through them, and it is ok. I guess it is time to accept this contradiction, rather than try to resolve it. I am not infallible…in just the same way that I found out that I was not indestructible.
I have since learned a personal truth; I cannot beat cancer, all I can do is everything I can to ensure it doesn’t beat me. This is not a war or a battle, there is no evil creature or monster to slay, just an error. An error in my DNA that is causing my own cells to replicate themselves erroneously. The cancer is mine…it is part of me…as I said no evil third party is involved.
There is a battle, there is a fight but not against cancer…it is against myself. Against allowing myself to slip into despair, against the need to blame someone or thing, against the hope of being cured and the fear of its resurgence. Against thinking that the world revolves around my condition…it doesn’t.
The ‘fight’ against cancer was important to me but only at first. It stopped me from drowning. The reality is that after this it was more important for the people around me. They felt helpless, and needed hope as much as I did, the fight was something that they could relate to. Something that I could give them to hang onto. People even now still say “how brave” I have been in my “fight” against cancer. I smile and thank them, in full knowledge that brave is when you voluntarily venture into danger, there is nothing voluntary about cancer.
A quick note on naming a project.
I named my treatment ‘Project Beowulf’ as I could visualise myself as the hero fighting the tumour in my lung (Grendel) and the cancer in my lymph nodes (Grendel’s mother). This seemed perfect. However, when I actually read the poem I was alarmed to find out that years after this heroic feat Beowulf was killed by a dragon after almost all of his trusted warriors had abandoned him. Not quiet the end I was hoping for but also, as is often the case, poetically not an impossible end to my own story!