It’s World Cancer Day today, and I have an awful confession. I didn’t know it was World Cancer Day until I woke up this morning and looked at Twitter. A year ago, on February 4th, I was in the hospital for an MRI scan of my hip. I only know this because I scrolled back in my photos app on my phone to see if there was evidence of what I was doing last World Cancer Day. I found a picture of me in my hospital gown that I had sent to my family Whatsapp group. It is perhaps a twist of fate that I was in a hospital because it certainly wasn’t a venue I often frequented at that time. The point is this, I was blissfully unaware of World Cancer Day, despite being in a hospital. Perhaps a notification flashed up on my phone about it from a major news outlet; maybe I heard a conversation between 2 people in the street about it. If I was made aware of it at any point, it didn’t stick. Not that year and not any other year. The same way that I used to purposefully scroll past videos of slaughterhouse conditions, where KFC’s main manufacturers are caught dipping live chickens in tar to remove their feathers. Watching the videos forced me to think about my complicity in such events because KFC was my “hangover cure”. Eventually, I decided to go vegetarian because I wasn’t comfortable with such things. Now, I have been forced to address my own ignorance over cancer.
It is easy to be purposefully ignorant of issues that you do not class as ‘your’ issue. Perhaps it is even wise as you cannot burden yourself with every issue which may impact you in your life. You’d have so much anxiety that you would likely stop trying to navigate the big, dangerous world and would stay locked safely indoors, avoiding anything and everything that may threaten you. The thing with cancer is, you seem to be in the minority if you have no firsthand experience of the damage that it causes. My first proper experience of it was when a good friend in school’s brother tragically died of cancer when he was 17, after years of battling the disease. I saw flashes of the damage this caused but not more than that. I remember being at my friend’s 18th birthday party years after his brother had died. My friend and another brother of his were crying, drinking Jack Daniels in his memory; they said it was his favourite drink.
Despite this experience, I still managed to be ignorant of the disease. I heard the odd story about someone else’s parent, grandparent, sometimes a sibling, but it always felt far away from me. There was seldom a case that hit close to home. The Cancer Research UK adverts went over my head, generally. That isn’t to say I ignored them, but I felt the sadness as I watched the advert, then quickly moved on to the next thing. It didn’t stick with me. Even when I ran a marathon for Cancer Research UK in 2018, I read the emails they sent and contemplated the ‘1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime’ statistic, but it all still felt far from me. I felt like I was raising money for a good cause, but it didn’t feel like my cause. I didn’t have a particular name to put on a t-shirt or an ‘In memory of…’ to write on social media. That’s ok, I still raised a good amount of money for them, but I felt like a valiant philanthropist raising money for an ailment that didn’t even affect me.
After being diagnosed with cancer, something changed. Suddenly, I started seeing cancer everywhere and the ‘1 in 2’ statistic started feeling more real. I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing more stories about the damage cancer has caused. Friends telling me that both of their grandparents died of a particular cancer, that their mum had it and survived it, and that they have to be screened for it every year and are waiting for the time that it comes back positive. I remember reading a book a while ago that discussed how you learn about a topic and ‘raise your consciousness’ of the world. Once this happens, you struggle to go back to your old consciousness. It happened to me when I read a book about the anatomy of birds. Suddenly, I started noticing that birds of prey fly around our motorways and train tracks everywhere you go in the UK. Now, whenever I drive somewhere or I’m on a train, I spend time looking for them and observing them. My consciousness was raised to their presence in the world, just as it has now been raised to the damage that cancer causes.
Of course, the reality is that something didn’t ‘change’ per se. After being diagnosed with cancer, I had a personal stake in it, and it was a catalyst for others to share their stories with me. It is a major reason why I started the blog. It feels like everyone has at least 1 story of cancer and how it has negatively impacted that individual or a very close relation. By writing the blog and sharing my experience, I hoped it would encourage others to talk more about their experience. It can feel like you are a fun sponge discussing such issues, but these stories are what make us human. They encapsulate the struggle we all feel in life – whether struggling with an awkward colleague, a changing relationship with a close friend or a life-threatening illness. Any situation can feel world-ending in a particular context, with a certain mindset. Cancer has forced me to change so many of my behaviours and re-evaluate my old priorities. It has afforded me the luxury of focusing on 1 thing above all else – staying alive.
My experience of the struggle against cancer is this… It is going to bed feeling positive, only to wake up at 4am after having a horrible dream and only having the dark to contemplate it with. It is having a good couple of days where you feel normal, only to catch yourself in the mirror after a shower and seeing the chemotherapy port under your chest, reminding you that things aren’t normal. It is seeing a headline about a celebrity who has died at an unusually young age, 30s, 40s or even 50s, and trying to guess what type of cancer they had as I open up the article; sometimes it says pancreatic and it feels even more soul-crushing. It is having a pint with friends in the evening at a restaurant, only to reflect the next day and wonder if my behaviour is careless, if that pint will be why my next scan tells me that my cancer has spread. It is enjoying the minutes I spend with my family, fiancee and puppy, only to worry that it may be the last year, 2 years, 3 years that I get to spend with them. It is walking into a health food shop and asking the owner if they sell organic milk, only to end up in a conversation about my cancer; being told that ‘alternative research’ has shown that milk makes cancer cells grow quickly and that all of the specialists at The Christie, where I am receiving treatment, are signed up to Big Pharma’s ‘agenda’. It is googling statistics only to try and forget them, worrying about diet constantly, wondering if you’re doing the right thing trying to exercise when on chemotherapy, or if you are over-exerting yourself. Would that make cancer grow faster? The internet will tell you yes, no, maybe and everything in between.
The problem is that my experience of cancer is also this… it is finding a reason to write, something that I have always wanted to do but never had any confidence that I had something worthwhile to say. It is engaging with incredible people from all over the world, all involved in a genuine struggle against cancer, whether it is themselves or a close family member. It is learning to view the world completely differently, recognising that there is only so much you can control and that there is a huge amount of comfort in that lesson. It is proving to myself that I am strong enough to withstand what life throws at me – the tests, the procedures and the chemotherapy. It is getting engaged and spending more time with my parents than I ever would have been able to again. It is having the most genuine conversations with my friends, family and beyond, where we talk about the good, bad and the ugly. It is reconnecting with people from throughout my life, receiving heartfelt cards, messages and even presents.
So, I’m torn, really. I don’t want to sing cancer’s praises, but I also don’t want to spend my life berating it and talking about how miserable it has made my life because it hasn’t. I have it better than people did even a decade ago with my cancer. Last week I learnt that the chemotherapy I am on was only in trials in 2015, so the positive effect it has had on survival rates may not have even been recorded yet. But at any one time, the current sufferers of cancer carry the cross for future victims, just as the past sufferers carried the cross that has allowed the current treatment methods. The other day, I saw a post on Twitter by a woman with a stage 4 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer currently being treated under a clinical trial. She said that she asked the nurse if it was normal to have rashes all over her body and how long they would last, to which the nurse responded, “well, that’s what you’re on the trial for. You’re going to help us answer those questions.” It is a stark reminder that before things get better, they often get worse. The scientific method requires subjects, and those subjects reveal the true potential (and limitations) of a new treatment. By the time a new treatment is proven and put into use, it has been built on blood, sweat and tears. I remind myself of that when I am sitting on the chemotherapy ward, suffering through 5 and a half hours of a potent form of chemotherapy. 10 years ago, it may not have been a specialist form of chemotherapy drug that targets specific cancer cells; it would have been a more generic, unsophisticated form of chemotherapy. It would have sucked a whole lot more.
I am nearly at the end of my soapbox speech. Thank you for sticking with it this long. If you are wondering what you can do as a mere pedestrian in the struggle against cancer – raise money for charities, offer support to friends who are suffering from a diagnosis or whose families are. You can make a massive difference in the world by just being there for your friends in times of hardship, and that will make you a better person. My personal ask to you is this, share the blog and my Run 40 fundraiser on social media and tell everyone that it is in aid of World Cancer Day. Force the issue with the World because it has a tendency to turn a blind eye to important issues that may eventually impact it, just as I used to.