Dear Cancer

This was written for a competition I saw on Twitter. The brief was simply to write a letter to cancer. I thought I’d do it as it sounded like an exciting concept and a fresh take on a subject that I have obviously tackled to death in this blog. Writing in a letter format was a bit of a struggle for me, and it felt pretty jarring with my natural writing style. I also wasn’t sure how to address the ‘cancer’ as a subject and struggled with the best way to approach this. That also made it a nice challenge, though. I’m reasonably happy with the end result, I think. It was nice to just try something new. I’ve also been looking for inspiration in my writing, and these sorts of competitions add a pinch of excitement. Upon entering, I didn’t see any conditions that mean I cannot share it on my own blog, so hopefully, it isn’t a problem. I can always delete the post if I need to and claim ignorance.

Dear cancer,

In November 2021, I was diagnosed with you after five weeks of hospital appointments, scans, and blood tests. I was 28 years old. I’m 29 now and eight cycles into chemotherapy, with four more to go before the next progress scan.

I’ve learnt to facetiously refer to you as ‘The ‘C-Word’ because of how people react to your presence. Some people tune out as I talk about you, probably choosing an ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach to the topic and assuming it’ll never happen to them. Others can’t bear to face the reality of it. “You’re young; you’ll survive.” It can almost feel callous when people say words to that effect, but I know that isn’t their intent. The fact is that you are scary. You’re the diagnosis that no one wants to hear, the one that everyone fears – the great equaliser. Every time I see a headline that a celebrity has died at an unusually low age, I reluctantly scan the article. Your name is commonly there. Sometimes the word ‘pancreatic’ proceeds, and my stomach sinks even more.

Many people, medical professionals mainly, express how unlucky I am to be dealing with pancreatic cancer at my age. Statistically, I am very unfortunate. I have heard several figures quoted as the average age of someone diagnosed with my ailment, all of them over 70. I’m a touch younger than that.

The week after I was diagnosed, I purchased a lottery ticket. I’m not a superstitious person usually, but I couldn’t help myself. I was confident I’d win something. How could I get pancreatic cancer at 28 and NOT win a simple lottery? It was easy compared to what I’d managed to achieve with you. The day came; I checked the Lottery app to see if I had won. Not one number. You have my number, though, and I’m left dealing with the consequences.

At first, that consisted of much existentialism. Immediately after my diagnosis, I spent three days in the hospital. Sitting in the bed as I waited for a procedure that afternoon, I thought about how long I’d be alive before I finally succumbed to you. Maybe three years. Maybe one. Perhaps I’d be cured; no, that last one couldn’t possibly happen. It’s undoubtedly a matter of time now. Better face the reality of the situation than delude myself with hope, a dangerous thing.

The ‘doom’ phase lasted a few weeks, sparked by the leaflets, and fuelled by some pessimistic doctors. “In a small number of cases, chemotherapy will reduce the size of the tumour,” I read in a leaflet titled ‘Pancreatic Cancer and Diet’; I thought this would be the least risky leaflet to read but even this contained harrowing information. The doctor had told me that I really needed chemotherapy to work if I was going to survive. I’m currently classed as inoperable because the tumour has spread to a major artery. I not only need chemotherapy to shrink my tumour but also to shrink it away from the artery, something which is down to potluck, apparently. Without the artery being healthy, I can’t have the operation. Without the operation, I can’t get rid of the cancer. Upon reading the sentence, I sat crying in my hospital gown and wishing I could just opt out of the whole thing and die. At the lowest stage, I thought about a train crossing I used to cycle over where the locomotives came flying through at speeds of up to 180kmph. That’s where I’d do it.

I’m happy to say that you’ve given me far more to be grateful for over time than to loathe you for. Reading has always been a big hobby, and I’ve always wanted to try writing, but I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. After starting chemotherapy, I created my blog called Ebb and Flow. It doesn’t get a massive amount of views, but it is far more than I thought it would get when I started it. People comment on the quality of the writing, which makes me feel more accomplished than anything I’ve achieved in my job as an IT consultant. I participated in the Run 40 in Feb campaign for Pancreatic Cancer UK, raising over £7,000 for them; my campaign was in the top 1% of fundraisers on Just Giving in February. I’ve also asked my girlfriend to marry me and have spent more time with my parents than I ever thought I would again; I had to move back in with them as I couldn’t afford to live in London anymore whilst undergoing treatment. Every cloud has a silver lining, and I’ve found my fair share of silver linings over time.

None of these achievements mean as much as this final one, though… I’ve proven that I can fight you, cancer. I remember seeing the adverts for Cancer Research UK before I was diagnosed and having so much admiration for those fighting against you. “I could never do that,” I said to myself. I really believed it – I couldn’t even have a blood test without feeling like I would pass out. At the three month scan, I found out that the chemotherapy was proving effective and that we had almost halved you. The tissue around the artery is looking healthier, too. There’s still a long way to go before I can say that I am cured. The surgeons need to approve the surgery, which may take other methods such as Radiotherapy and Nanoknife to achieve. Then I need that surgery to be successful. After that, I go into the stressful stage of remission, constantly fearing that at the next progress scan, I find out you have come back with a vengeance, lurking like a shadow, dormant until detected.

It’s a long road, but it’s the only way out of the woods. I’m tackling it with my head held high, surrounded by loved ones and holding onto whatever hope I can. The worst that can happen is you win, and I die, but at least I’ll know I gave it a good go and found plenty of happiness doing so.