I was 31 years old when cancer tried to get me.
It was a time in my life when I had never been fitter, having run the Chicago marathon just a few months earlier.
My cancer was considerate enough to reveal itself by cultivating a pain in my chest, which my GP believed was a collapsed lung. My x-ray begged to differ. It revealed a cloud. The kind of white, fluffy cloud you see in an Oliver Jeffers’s book – but whose intentions were far more insidious.
The x-ray led to an oncologist which led to a biopsy, which led to months of chemotherapy.
Nothing revelatory there. Just another cancer story.
The point is I get to tell my story. Not everyone is so lucky. I know two people from those days that weren’t. Their names were Brian and Paul. I shared a ward with them. They both died opposite me.
My first day in the hospital Paul asked me who my oncologist was. Before I could even answer he interrupted with a wry smile and the words: ‘Same cocktails, different barmen.’
I love that line. The generosity of a lesson from a veteran that it’s humour that’s required to face down the horror I was about to experience: The horror of Donal’s severed arm because the only way to cut out his cancer was to cut off one of his limbs (and even that might not work). The horror of witnessing a wife weeping openly at the bedside of the man she’d been married to for more than fifty years because they both knew how this would end. The horror of occupying the bed opposite a man who just months earlier had been a Partner in one of the country’s top accountancy firms and was now reduced to a vegetative state because of a brain tumour, and unable to even recognise his elderly parents.
No wonder cancer is such an ancient disease. Smart enough not be just one disease, but many – its shape-shifting capabilities vicious and often lethal. Enduring it, and emerging from it still intact, can be the personal equivalent of going to war. The weapons are chemo; radiation; the surgeon’s knife; keyhole surgery that’s anything but; severed limbs. And that’s just the physical side. As Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet: Diseases desperate grown, By desperate appliance are relieved, Or not at all.
That appliance is a blunt instrument. In my case it was a cocktail laced with platinum, the kind of chemical warfare that killed every cell in my body, good and evil. And it worked. Miraculously, insanely, painfully, it worked. But only because a researcher in a laboratory back in the 1970s received the financial backing to discover that this particular chemo combination could reduce a colossal cloud in my chest to microscopic scar tissue. You see, remedies don’t happen without research, and research doesn’t happen without funding. And funding doesn’t happen without people pulling on runners, getting on bikes, throwing coffee mornings and getting out there and trying to get cancer in whatever way they can.
There’s a fear that some people might be shocked by a campaign from the Irish Cancer Society asking people to Get Cancer, but if you’ve ever had cancer; if you’ve ever seen a loved one die of cancer – and by God watching someone you love die is the hardest thing in this world – then it will take more than an advertising line to shock you. Although hopefully it will rouse you, and thousands of others, with the determination necessary to match cancer’s every day triumphalism in the wake of yet another family’s unimaginable anguish.
Because just three days before Christmas, I learned of a young mother – a friend of a friend – who died earlier that morning, murdered by cancer and depriving a four old boy and his older sister of their mother for the rest of their lives. Just a few days previously she attended her son’s Christmas play, watching from her wheelchair, determined to be there, while three days before Christmas I got to stand and film my son singing carols, knowing I’d get to spend Christmas with him, to watch him open his presents, and to kiss him goodnight.
There really are no words for cancer. None. But thankfully actions speak so much louder. So act. Help us to Get Cancer.