I think I’m in the middle of a very mild ‘cancer scare’. I am supposed to be editing a post about choice in feminism to go up tonight but I’m doing this instead. I’m not even going through my usual process of writing this as a word document first and copying it on to the blog. I’m just going for it. This is going to be another spontaneous post – we’ll see how it goes.
Let me start by saying I don’t usually allow myself to think about cancer under any circumstances. It is so scary. The pain and suffering. The horrendous process of chemotherapy (which is apparently a separate second set of pain and suffering). My personal fear of being cared for – what if they get tired of me, begin to resent me, are forced to put on a bright smile for my sake or mistreat me (you have no idea where my mind has gone) – by even my nearest and dearest.
What else? The excellent but less than completely co-ordinated National Health Service. Money matters. Not being able to look after the kids. Maybe not even seeing the kids grow up. Being trapped in a hospital bed while annoying people visit me. Changed physical appearance. Those terrifying pictures accompanying pleas for people in advanced stages of cancer who have not been, up to this point, able to afford treatment. I can’t think of or look at any of it. I can barely read through a short article telling us how to check for breast cancer.
Another more trivial and rather mean thought that occupies me is what if I do have cancer and decide to ‘live life to the fullest’. What would I do? In what ways will I completely embarrass myself? For example, I write stand-up comedy in my little notebook. Just ideas that occur to me because I consider myself to be a funny person (I’m saying that with not a hint of irony, by the way). I would never perform stand-up comedy because I would be terrible at it. I’m a terrible actor and I am not good at delivering jokes. When I do say these jokes out loud, I sound like a really bad combination of Kevin Hart and Basketmouth. I guess I sometimes think of selling them to an actual stand-up comedian, but mostly they are just for fun.
If I am diagnosed and as part of ‘doing what I’ve always wanted to do’, would I wrap my head in a scarf, drag all my friends to the first dinghy club that would accept me and force them to listen to my cancer comedy? A friend of a friend has recently recovered from a very serious illness. She’s taken up stand-up comedy and, having met her, is an unlikely candidate for it. My friend has simply reported, without comment on the performance, that she attended her gig. This bothers me.
My cancer scare only started on Thursday. Yet here I am on Saturday full of enough terror (and vanity) to write about it. For about 2 weeks, I’ve been woken by a pain in my right arm. It started with numbness and tingling in my hands, travelled up my arm and became severe enough to wake me up – not going away until I had stood up for a few minutes, and then starting up again as soon as I tried to lie down. It has been, quite frankly a pain, but until Thursday cancer has not crossed my mind.
Through the usual mish-mash of internet research, I’d come to the conclusion, having first started with the premise that I was sleeping badly and then progressed on to carpal tunnel as I write a lot, that it was some sort of trapped nerve probably in my neck area. I was actually miserable with the idea that I would become one of these people with ‘chronic’ pain for which no cure can be found and who people begin to suspect of milking it out of laziness and for sympathy (you will learn, in the course of reading these posts, that it’s not that I’m an unkind person but that I’d much rather be in the position of defending people who are suffering than experience any kind of suffering). I’m also dealing with a stressful new role at work so I hoped it would be some kind of muscle spasm instead, which would relax as I relaxed into my new role.
One day, I finally called 111 and was given an emergency appointment with my GP (there were other symptoms, chest pain, shortness of breath etc). She conducted a number of checks and tests, seemed puzzled and said nervously that ‘it could be a number of things’. That still didn’t make me think of cancer. She also mentioned some kind of test for pinched nerves.
The pain continued and then lessened but, as it happened the night before, I went to see my (quite spaced-out) GP on Thursday, as planned, who said that she just wants me to do some blood tests and an X-ray before she tests the nerves. “Good luck!” she sang as I left the surgery with my two fussy and disobedient children. I still didn’t think of cancer. I thought the ‘good luck’ was about the kids (it probably was – I had to hush all three of them, including the GP, at least once during the visit).
It was my visit with a friend later that day that finally did it. My dear friend is bubbly and fun, but given to intense spells of pessimism, especially when it comes to cancer. It was she who uttered the phrase “It’s going to get us all!” a few years ago, which appears in my latest short story.
She hinted that a number of people had discovered cancer following a pain in their arm/shoulder. She mentioned that I had lost a lot of weight (I have not! I was wearing black clothes and long, straight hair extensions), she questioned me about my hair loss and asked why I hadn’t gone to the doctor (I’m not balding from the scalp; my hair is breaking, I explained. And now that I think about it, hair loss isn’t a sign of most kinds of cancer – it’s a side effect of chemotherapy) and asked me to keep an eye on it. This got me thinking and remembering that my husband had said one morning after I told him brightly that ‘the pain didn’t bother me last night’ that I needed to get it sorted out in one of his rare serious moments. I’d expected him to say, as he normally would ‘Great! Let’s forget about it, then!’.
I started researching first signs of cancer and noticed fatigue. I immediately started feeling tired and tried to remember how long I’d been feeling this way. Also, apart from a few twinges which I’m sure are mostly psychosomatic, the pain has gone although the arm is still tingly, tender and weird. Also, and this is very important, NO HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL HAS MENTIONED THE WORD ‘CANCER’. All the GP did was order blood tests and a scan instead of, as I expected,whisking me off to the nerve specialist, tell me ‘it could be a number of things’, act with unprecedented haste and say ‘Good luuu-uuck’ as I left (she really is strange. I mean, who says that?).
I therefore realise that I am far from a fully blown cancer scare. What is a cancer scare anyway? What do public figures, when they are doing ads for cancer charities or responding to a belligerent tweet, mean when they say ‘I had a cancer scare 3 years ago so I know how you feel’? I think, hope, it’s beyond googling random symptoms and getting down to a cancer article on page 15 of your search. Almost anything can be a ‘sign of cancer’. I suspect it’s at or beyond the biopsy stage (she says, like she knows what she’s talking about). I’m at the blood test and X-ray stage so I’m not even there yet.
And even beyond the biopsy stage, isn’t there the possibility that a tumour is benign? Isn’t cancer malignant in that it spreads and destroys everything (see? I told you I never read about cancer) thereby producing this kind of phrase that an average Nigerian man with a pulse may use “This idea that women are entitled to the same rights as men is spreading like cancer,” (Feminism, crowbar, any article. It’s like a magic trick.). And of course there is the type of waiting that comes after you’ve had cancer, have been treated and are waiting to see if the treatment is successful.
Therefore I don’t really understand what people mean when they say ‘I’ve had a cancer scare so I know how you feel.’ like it puts them in some kind of club with cancer survivors or patients. Or people who give testimonies in church stating that their cancer scare turned out not to be cancer after all. Of course we should always be grateful to God for life and health but, beyond going for the initial tests and all the anticipation and terror of waiting, what is this kind of testimony about? How has the person actually changed? How exactly does having a cancer scare make one understand what a cancer patient goes through??
Another grievance of mine is all this talk of taking cancer on as if it were an opponent in a boxing match. Stand up to cancer. Say no to cancer. Give cancer the finger. Give it two fingers. Give it as many fingers as you want. Eff you, cancer. Spit on its….Has the world gone mad? I saw an article that advised that people waiting to find out whether they are in remission should keep moving as it’s ‘hard for cancer to hit a moving target.’.
I can think of nothing more off-putting than feeling at my worst, and being jollied along in this manner. Also, I can’t help but think it comes from a world that is weary of taking care of any kind of sick person and wants to trick them into thinking that if they just smile enough and stop feeling sorry for themselves, they will hardly notice their green skin and propensity to vomit up anything they have eaten.
Well, I’m due an X-ray in a week. I’ve been told I have to wait another week for the results. I am going to force myself to wait a further three days before calling the surgery. I may update this post. Alternatively, if this article simply disappears, it’s probably because I thankfully do not have any signs of cancer and therefore have lost the right (and the courage) to write about things that may give true cancer patients some comfort.
Update: The results of my blood tests came back and they are normal! Whoop whoop! I called the GP tentatively to ask about the procedure for reporting back on tests. I don’t know why I was so tentative, why I’m so keen to appear reasonable. Anyway the receptionist said they don’t report back unless there’s something to report – an unusually cruel way of operating, it seems, especially if they are able to climb into my mind and read my paranoid thoughts. Yay! Now I just have to wait for the x-rays but I doubt they will show anything too sinister. I’m so relieved that I’m not even embarrassed about what a state I was in when I wrote this post : )