C is for… cancer
Since I started this challenge with a contentious topic, I figured I might as well broach the subject of the big C. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? [peeks from behind the sofa]
Cancer. Even the word is so infused with emotions that it sits leaden and sharp in your mouth. Through its long history, it’s been imbued with the power to strike terror.
Cancer has been the ominous monster that lurks in my family’s darkened cupboards for as long as I can remember. It has reached its venomous fingers into too many generations. Cancer dug it’s claws into my father’s lungs twice, eating at them. It literally sucked the breath from him twenty years ago. Cancer has stolen more aunts, uncles and grandparents than I care to acknowledge.
More recently, cancer reared its heinous head to stare, cold eyed at one of my brothers. It’s been five years since his initial diagnosis, and he’s officially cancer free, but it’s taken its toll. As Siddhartha Mukherjee put it in The Emperor of All Maladies, he travelled to “the kingdom of the ill”, and one doesn’t return unchanged from that journey.
Cancer is unsparing in its reach too, unselfishly spreading its influence beyond the patient. Anyone in the general vicinity is infected by its pernicious ripples. The 3am coughing fits, the middle of the night carry-hustle of a weakened love one to the bathroom like a petulant child, the endless searches for food that can still be tasted after chemotherapy has ravaged tastebuds, are all the remit of the carers. It’s exhausting and demoralising. Self care is often hard to practice, and can feel oddly selfish. It’s a terrible bind.
For some of us being both a carer, and a patient are equally likely. The regularity of cancer’s appearance in my family history, keeps me glancing over my shoulder. Like some Hitchcock-esque villain, it follows me, casting its shadow over me periodically in the form of the quivering threat of mesothelioma embedded in double pneumonia, or uterine fibroids hidden in menorrhagia. It’s the terrifying imaginary friend, the devil hidden just beyond sight, the ever present threat of death’s cold hand.