It's a cliché but as we get older, sooner or later we're all touched by cancer. Of those of us born after 1960, one in two will at some point receive a diagnosis of cancer so you'd have to be bloody lucky not to be, or know, one of them at some point.
Cancer made its presence felt early in my life. I never met my mum's dad who died from bowel cancer on Christmas Day when she was just ten. She remembers that he bought her an umbrella that year.
My mum's sister was then diagnosed with breast cancer when I was at primary school. Only recently my dad has mentioned that he didn't see her for months at a time as whenever we would visit she would stay in her room, perhaps conscious of the frightening sight she might present. She went through treatment in the mid-eighties and he alluded that it was perhaps more brutal than it is today, although I don't really know what that is supposed to mean.
In response to my dad's comment my mum looked confused. "I saw her," she said. "I went over to the house, once I'd dropped the kids at school, to make sure she got out of bed." Even typing those words makes my breath catch in my throat.
To be honest though, there is a lot that I don't know and as I type this I'm wondering whether it's appropriate to text my mum. She is away on holiday in Italy but I can't remember the name of the new (at the time) drug she was given, alongside her other treatment in 2000, when the same disease that took her father and sister came so cruelly knocking for her.
I don't know what my mum looked like after her first or second (in 2004) mastectomy. She asked me at the time if I wanted to see - I think perhaps as a way to help me process what was happening - but I shied away. I don't know how she felt about that either.
I don't know whether I carry the gene that makes it more likely that I'll develop breast cancer early in my life too. "What difference would it make?" I've always said, hiding perhaps behind my assumption that living with the knowledge would somehow make it worse.
But now I'm a mother too I'm starting to wonder if that is the right decision. When my mum received the all clear I remember feeling completely underwhelmed. I had never allowed myself to imagine the worse that could happen so my attitude was, "Of course. Didn't we know that already?" But the thought of leaving my own children alone in the world makes me understand the magnitude of what I could have lost, and now I cry ten-year-old tears of relief.
As my grasp on reality has improved over the years however, so have cancer treatments. Thanks to the research undertaken by Very Clever People, in part funded by campaigns and charities such as Stand Up To Cancer for Cancer Research UK, 2 in 4 people now survive their cancer for 10 years or more. This is double the rate of survival compared to 40 years ago when my aunt was receiving her first diagnosis.
Staring down a microscope at breast cancer cells during a recent lab tour at The Imperial Cancer Research UK Centre I was surprised at how overwhelmed I felt. At one point one of the doctors thanked us for helping them raise awareness. I think we all felt a little embarrassed about that and for me meeting the people responsible for twice saving my mum's life, no matter how far removed they are, was humbling.
I watched as another woman called a cancer cell "a fucker" when it came to her turn to stare it down, and saw two women, mothers, currently undergoing treatment, so brave and dignified, but also raw and scared. It hit hard how cancer touches everyone, but at the same time how effing unfair it all is.
Feeling useful in the face of cancer is pretty much impossible. All we did that day was wander around a lab, dress up in 'Rebel Hero' costumes as part of Stand Up To Cancer's push to get people across the UK to join the rebellion against cancer, and act like wallies on social media.
But I also realised that while we need the Very Clever People to keep on being clever, us ordinary people don't have to sit on the sidelines.
By shouting about the science, by donating whatever we can, and through our own ordinary fundraising efforts we can all contribute. And for me that feels empowering, less helpless, and definitely less like the ticking time-bomb I've always joked I am.
Because cancer might indeed be a fucker, but together we can tell it to get fucked.
Nicola is supporting Stand Up To Cancer, a joint national fundraising campaign from Cancer Research UK and Channel 4 to accelerate ground-breaking cancer research and save more lives, more quickly. To support the launch of this year’s campaign, Nicola, along with other social influencers has dressed up as her ‘Rebel Hero’, Princess Diana.
Nicola said: “I wouldn't really describe myself as a Royalist and I've never really paid much attention to what the Royal family gets up to, even so Diana really stands out to me as someone who was determined to do things her way. In the face of considerable opposition and criticism she pursued what she thought was right and just - love her, loathe her, or feel completely indifferent towards her, I still think that is something to be admired. As a mother, it seems to me that her greatest legacy is two sons who have taken up the mantle of doing things differently. Their relationships, their commitment to charitable work, and their willingness to be open about taboo subjects are surely thanks to the strength of character of their rebel mother.”Suggest a correction