I didn't want to join the Cancer Club. It's such a cliché. Like it not, I have a life-time membership. It's not exclusive and celebrity status offers no protection - the 352,000 or so people that Cancer Research UK tell us will be diagnosed with cancer in the UK this year come from all walks of life.
When we hear the words "You have cancer," we cross a threshold into a place hitherto invisible. No ordinary person can follow us. At a harrowing initiation ceremony, usually in a hospital, we find out we have a disease so ancient that it's been found in the thousand-year old bones of a woman from the Chiribiya tribe in the Atacama Desert in South America. Here in our 21st Century, cancer is still as feared as the monsters that haunt our childhood nightmares.
I've tried hard not to let cancer define me, not to become a 'victim', a 'battler' or perhaps worst of all 'a patient'. My mantra is "I am not a Hospital Number, I am a Free Woman" mimicking Number 6 from the sixties TV programme, The Prisoner.
For a long time, Denial was my best-friend. I screwed up my fears tightly into a tiny ball which I buried deep within myself. I wore a cloak of positivity, as light as hope and sparkling with the silver linings of all the clouds obscuring my horizon. When I crossed the finish-line of a year-long cancerathalon, I was physically and emotionally exhausted but there was also elation, and gratitude.
I thought I'd failed when I was diagnosed with cancer again three years later. Bad luck might explain one cancer, but getting it a second time seemed completely irresponsible. I might have been surrounded by my family and a few friends but I've never felt more alone.
A turning point came when I discovered there were women like me, women who shared some of my feelings and worries. When C.S. Lewis wrote "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What you, too? Thought I was the only one'" he could never have imagined the friendships which grow between people affected by cancer, and, that we can talk to one another via online communities. When I said, "I'm so scared," they didn't tell me that I might get hit by a bus tomorrow. They said "Yeah, me too." They knew exactly what I was talking about.
Like any secret society, we have our hidden rooms where entry is forbidden and subjects, like secondary breast cancer, which we dare not discuss. Of course, hearing about those who have survived cancer against all the odds is cause for celebration and offers hope, especially for those who are newly diagnosed. But what does it mean if we don't tell the public at large about the grimmer realities of cancer? (You don't believe me? I was told not to mention my recurrence during a radio interview because "people wouldn't understand"). If we only celebrate 'remission' and 'feel-good' stories, there is the risk that cancer becomes associated with the extraordinary, that expectations of us more ordinary folk become unrealistic - just for the record, I don't have a bucket list, have no plans to jump out of an aeroplane and I need to work, though I can't speak for anyone else - and those living with incurable cancer are seen as the exception and their stories are untold.
I find myself thinking about the Chiribiyan woman. She was in her thirties when she died from osteosarcoma (a cancer of the bone). Although our lives are separated by a thousand years, I feel a connection to her. You can imagine then, how I might feel when I hear a friend has incurable cancer. Each new diagnosis also reminds me of my own vulnerability, something I would prefer to forget. And I don't just mourn for my friend, I mourn for strangers, for women I've never met, like Holley Kitchen, Lisa Lynch, Ellie Jeffry and Rebecca Ellison (to name but a few). I mourn for my future self. No, I don't see myself as a member of a club. We are what Jules Verne called "the Living Infinite," and, if we can be brave and we can allow ourselves to feel our pain, we become like the sea, nothing but "love and emotion".
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