War is said to present a man with his life’s biggest challenge. The female equivalent is, so they say, childbirth. Both are experiences that tilt your world on its axis and afterwards, you never see things in quite the same way. I’d argue that sitting across from a medical professional who’s saying the words ‘you’ and ‘cancer’ is similarly defining.
Each of these things will put a distance between you and people who’ve not been through it. One of the most challenging elements of cancer for me is no-one knows quite what to do with you, nor do you know what to do with yourself. Interactions are either emotionally heightened or avoided. You’ve got the ultimate trump card, whether you want it or not. If I say “How are you?” and the person’s having a tough time, they don’t feel entitled to say. So they respond “Not great, but…it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through.” And there we are, in the conversational cul-de-sac until I let them off the hook with a platitude or two.
To be fair for every clunky conversation, there have been a number of amazing and soul-searching discussions and I’ve definitely received more love and hugs – both real and virtual – than I would have done without the diagnosis. Another silver lining.
And as well as distancing you from those who’ve not been there, the axis-tilting forges alliance with those who have. Before children, and cancer, the closest experience I’d had of this was during a truly dreadful year in recruitment. “It’s like the trenches.” said my friend Chris (aka Tex) of our time working together “You don’t know if you weren’t there.” It was during the dot com crash and it’s true that in that crucible, filled as it was with tears of pressure and laughter, a remarkable team spirit arose and although I’ve got very little in common with Tex – he’s a gun-owning, card carrying Republican – I trust him entirely.
In the last week, three friends have set foot in the landscape that’s my reality, but a hitherto foreign place for them. They’ve not actually Gone There, but each has a fresh appreciation of my current world.
First up was Faye who, after our night on the town came with me to an appointment with my cosmetic surgeon. From my perspective, it was a routine check up whereby the doctor and I talked through some decisions I need to make prior to my next surgery, after which she checked my reconstruction to see how it was holding up to the radiotherapy.
Afterwards, Faye and I sat on a bench and she said in a humbled, and slightly shaky voice “Sambo, I… I get it. I mean, I don’t obviously because I’m not you but… wow. That stuff. It’s hard core. You’re amazing.” And of course, the little cup of grief I hold on to so carefully got spilled and we had a cry together. Soldiering on, I forget that grief is social. For that culture to bloom all that’s needed is for someone I love to show concern face to face.
That afternoon, a friend whose daughter is at preschool with Eleanor texted to say she’d had a mammogram which resulted in a biopsy. She’d get the results in two days. I missed her when I phoned but saw her husband at the school the next day. We exchanged a mime:
Him: My God! How full on is this?
Me: I know, right? Right?
Then the verbal exchange which I, with the interesting experience of having the shoe wedged on the other foot, fumbled my way through. Can I take Zoe, is there anything you need, just give me a call and all that.
Then back home I found a card from Laura who shared an incredibly sweet and reassuring sentiment. She explained that thanks to a nasty exchange at the hands of her dentist:
…it totally hit me, for the first time really, despite my avid following of your blog…what it is that you have been enduring these last few months. I am so sorry it took my own feelings of helplessness to get there, but I did. It’s not to say I haven’t been paying attention, but suddenly I really thought about all the sucking up and being brave you’ve had to do and it humbled me and made me so very proud of you.
The next day my heart was full of empathy for my friend stuck in the hideous no man’s land of results-waiting. That afternoon I saw her in the supermarket and gave her a hug.
“Are you well?”
“Yes! It’s all fine. It was nothing.”
“Thank God! That’s brilliant. I’m so glad.”
And I was, genuinely, so, so glad. But back in the car, when I started to cry, I honestly don’t know how those tears might have looked under a microscope.