A is for Are You F***ing Kidding Me?!

For every cancer patient there is a BC and an AC. Before Cancer and After Cancer, and the watershed moment in between when the world as you know it shifts irretrievably on its axis.

Breast cancer has always been my kryptonite, so when the alarm bells started ringing I had a fair idea that this wasn’t going to be a drill.  Events seemed to be unravelling towards a frighteningly inevitable conclusion, and so it was that the night before my own watershed moment I was acutely conscious that I was standing at a very real fork in the road, completely powerless to influence which way my life was heading. That this time tomorrow I would either do exactly as I planned and go for dinner with my friends, or I wouldn’t, because I would be plunged into a reality too horrifying to contemplate. That this might be the last time I settled down to sleep in the safe and carefree knowledge that all was well. Not so much the first night of the rest of my life, but the last night of the past of my life.

Finding out you have cancer is exactly how you imagine it would be, and not at all as you imagined it, all at the same time. You have the out of body experience, and you can see yourself hearing the news. But your life doesn’t necessarily flash before your eyes. Instead the opposite occurs and, in an instant, the bright and shiny future that you planned rolls back to the horizon, receding further and further beyond your grasp, and in its place settles a dense and murky fog of uncertainty, thick with illness and incapacity, hospitals and treatments, and nothing that sounds like anything you ever wanted for yourself. It is the ultimate sliding doors moment.

But if you close your eyes does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?

– Bastille, Pompeii

Whoever devised the recent Macmillan ‘Not Alone’ television adverts must know a thing or two about cancer because they convey beautifully the plummeting shock and desolate isolation of diagnosis. The only thing missing is the other instantaneous and heartbreaking realisation, that not only are you being catapulted into this horror, but you are the reason that the people you love will have to journey through it too. Like Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship you will all be forced to depart the sunshine of the Shire for the sinister and unknown road to the East.

And when your brain has spent 30 seconds processing all that, and your head has come back down from the ceiling and reentered your body, you will ask a totally bizarre question. Or at least I did. Because the obvious and immediate response to being informed that you have breast cancer is definitely to say “is there anything I should change about my diet which might help?” Which was really my way of asking if I hadn’t somehow brought this sorry state affairs upon myself because, whilst my life wasn’t flashing before my eyes, all the bottles of wine I’d ever drunk definitely were and making me wonder if I should have lent greater credence to the warnings in the Daily Mail. My doctor, seeing right through me, said that if she were me she would go home and pour a stiff gin and tonic, and then proceeded to tell me in three crystal clear bullet points that:

  1. I had cancer
  2. It was not the end of the world, and
  3. The next thing I needed was a scan, Wednesday 10am.

A doctor who understood the medicinal power of a G&T and spoke in bullet points – I knew she was the medical professional for me.

I have been told I have cancer twice now (for the unfortunate few there is also ACA – After Cancer Again) and, for me, far worse than the actual diagnosis both times was the period that followed. The excruciating limbo when you know that you have cancer, and don’t yet know anything else: what type, how bad, and crucially what can be done about it? For a control freak this is the worst form of torture, but a necessary one, because this is where your mind has time to ‘process’ and recover from the bludgeoning it just received.

They say there are seven stages of grief, and so it is with a cancer diagnosis. It goes a bit like this:

1) Shock

Are you f**king kidding me?! I mean are you F**KING KIDDING me?! This was not supposed to happen to me. Other, better stuff was supposed to happen to me! How is THIS what is happening to me?! To ME??? Fuck.
(There are some moments in life – the moments of ‘impotent rage’ – when “fuck” is absolutely the only word for the situation and should be considered representative of an intelligent and well selected vocabulary.)

2) Denial

There isn’t a whole lot of room for denial once you’ve heard the dreaded words “the cells are malignant”. Except of course if this is some administrative mix up and you’ve been given someone else’s test results? This is an OUTRAGE! I have been diagnosed with SOMEONE ELSE’S CANCER! Except, oh, no, it’s definitely mine…

3) Bargaining

Obvious. I would give everything I have for this not to be happening.

4) Guilt

I should have known. I should have checked more, quicker, and more again. I shouldn’t have drunk so much wine/eaten so much steak/tempted the wrath of the gods by arrogantly assuming that normal nice things might happen for me. I should have made more of an effort in all my past lives.

5) Anger – AKA the Keith Richards Conundrum

What the f**k? I mean WHAT THE ACTUAL F**K? (Back to the swearing again.)
How is this FAIR? And why is this happening to me, and not say Keith Richards? Not that I have anything against Keith Richards, nor would I wish bad things upon him. I really appreciate the contribution that he and the Stones have made to modern music. But he’s not exactly renowned for treating his body like a temple, is he?! I have at least not been a drug, alcohol or tobacco addict, or properly abused my body in any way. In fact, given this was going to happen, perhaps I should have misspent my youth in an altogether more spectacular fashion. Which brings me round again to scream like a petulant toddler “HOW IS THIS FAIR?”

6) Depression

There is no point in getting dressed because I have cancer. There is no point in washing my hair because I have cancer. Everything is ruined because I have cancer.
Life is shit and then you die.

7) Acceptance

Except, hang on a minute. How long are you actually going to spend festering like this in your dressing gown scraping the very bottom of the Netflix box set barrel? Because absolutely nothing in life is severe enough to justify wasting 90 minutes that you’ll never get back watching The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream (straight to DVD). Aside from anything else, wallowing in your own cancer pity is really boring. So you’ve got cancer? You and millions of other people (2.5 million in the UK in case you were wondering[1]). That’s millions of people staring adversity in the face and finding a way to get dressed in the morning while you’re doing your best impression of roadkill.

Cancer, clearly you don’t know me very well, but if you think you’re taking me down with your first blow then you’re definitely f**king kidding me. This may not be the journey I planned, but it’s the one I’m damn well on, so break’s over. It’s time to suit up… and a skanky dressing gown is NOT going to be suitable attire.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

-Winston Churchill

Links & References

Macmillan Not Alone Campaign
[1] http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Aboutus/Ouresearchandevaluation/Researchandevaluation/Keystatistics.aspx

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