Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Lessons learned.

I had lunch with my boss recently. 'So, having cancer,' she said over a bowl of miso soup. 'Do you think it's changed you?' Without really thinking, I immediately answered 'yes', cannon-launching myself into a monologue about my newly lowered tolerance for tears, particularly on reality TV shows. Whingeing on Masterchef because you ballsed up your halibut and all you've ever wanted from life is to 'spread joy' with your food. Crying at American Idol auditions because you've 'been through hell and back' to get to the second round. Sobbing in front of Sralan on The Apprentice because being 'successful in business' (whatever that means) is your life's ambition. Oh do fuck off and find some sodding perspective.

I'd have thought that my tolerance for illness would have gone the same way, but actually I suspect I've become oddly empathetic. I found myself unusually sympathetic to my brother's cold this weekend (and bear in mind that this is my brother – given our glorious, piss-taking relationship, I'm more likely to find sympathy for a jobless city banker who's had to trade in his 5 Series for a Ford Focus). But I was genuinely sorry that J lagged behind feeling so crappy while the rest of us skipped around Rome on our chirpy, family, treatment-is-over trip. Feeling ill – whether it's through a cold or through cancer – is rubbish and, given my miserable reaction to having immediately caught the same cold (all hail The World's Most Useless Immune System), I'm no less grumpy sneezing than I am spewing. Whatever the cause of it, I can't help feeling that I've paid my dues when it comes to days spent feeling ill, and being laid up under a duvet with a tub of Vicks by my side only serves as a reminder of those endless bed-ridden days during chemo. (I'm sure even the pissed-up-pukes will remind me of the chemo-chunders.) I'm as whingeing a day-long sick-note as I was a months-long one, and I'm making no apologies for it. I've done my stint. (I also think that if you've had cancer, you should never again have to pay prescription charges or work full time or clean the bathroom floor, but let's save that for another rant, shall we?)

But while all of the above is pretty surface-skimming and flippant in answer, the 'have I changed?' question is one I've spent a lot of time thinking about since. Of course you could argue that everything changes you in one way or another. A different job changes you. A new handbag changes you. Hell, a good shit changes you. But I'm talking about the more profound changes. Am I a better person as a result of having cancer? Do I have a new-found gratitude for each dawn? Have I uncovered a cosmic significance to all of this? No. I don't have a new appreciation for the scent of a rose or the taste of champagne or the beauty of a discarded newspaper tumbling along a windy Soho pavement. Cancer may have made me many things, but spiritually enlightened ain't one of them. Zen and the Art of Cancer this is not. 

All that said, I am unquestionably different, and not just in appearance. And, while I'm sure my family and friends are better equipped to list the ways in which I have altered post-Bullshit (maybe that's an exercise I'll give them one day), that doesn't mean I can't recognise some of the more subtle differences myself. Just as everything has the potential to change you in some small way, I guess it has the potential to teach you something, too, whether it's as significant as being more vigilant about niggling health worries that you might not ordinarily trouble your GP with, or as simple as learning that your shirt sleeve doesn't make a good oven glove. 

So what has cancer taught me? I desperately want to say 'nothing', but that would be simplifying the point somewhat, since there are things I've learned since my diagnosis. For one, I've learned how to blog. And through blogging, I've been surprised – at times even overwhelmed – to learn that people are much nicer than I ever thought possible. I've learned how loved I am by the amazing people closest to me. I've learned that I have a rather lovely-shaped head. I've learned how to tie a headscarf and draw on eyebrows. I've learned that pubes are overrated. I've learned that I can just about carry off dark nail polish. I've learned to be wary of sentences starting with 'I will never'. I've learned that Ugg boots and tattoos and cats and therapy aren't necessarily a bad thing. I've learned how much I love to write.

But I'm damned if I'm attributing cancer with any one of those things. Cancer hasn't taught me anything I couldn't have figured out without it. Not how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful husband/family/friends. Not the ways in which I need to improve my life. Not the revelatory self-discovery of who I really am. Not the eureka-like moment about where my future is heading. Not even the benefits of eyeliner. All of those things I could have figured out – one way or another – without the life-threatening disease, thank you very much.

I had the same cancer debrief in my last (and possibly final) session with Mr Marbles. After vehemently confirming that he's 100% with me on the I'm Not Depressed, It's My Cancer Treatment debate (someone get that on a T-shirt, quick), he asked me to list the good things that have come out of the last few months. 'Nothing good has happened as a result of this,' I spat. 'I'd challenge that,' he replied, in that lovely, non-commital therapist-speak that basically translates as 'stop talking shite'. And, of course, he's right, damn him. (Maybe he should form a tag-team with Always-Right Cancer Nurse and go on Blockbusters.)

I just don't want to give anyone the false impression that breast cancer can in some way be a good thing. Nor do I want to give it credit for the better things that have come out of my cancer experience. (Note the use of 'experience' instead of 'journey'. Journey is surely #1 in the Wanky Cancer Clich├ęs Chart. 'Bravely battling' coming in at #2.) So instead me and Marbles settled on a compromise: of course I've changed as a result of having breast cancer, and a number of pleasant things have undoubtedly come along as a consequence – but, with or without The Bullshit (just as with or without the therapy), I'd have got there eventually.

But know this. All of those good things – this blog, discovering other blogs, the writing, the kitten, the beautiful future with my husband (and only my husband), the love for and from my family and friends, the ability to occasionally say 'fuck' in front of my parents and get away with it, the sister-like relationship with Tills, the lessons in eye make-up, the upgraded contents of my underwear drawer – none of these were breast cancer's doing. Those things are my doing – me and the people I'm surrounded by. Cancer was just the catalyst, is all. It just got me there faster. And, like taking the Heathrow Express instead of the tube, it cost me a fair bit more, too.

14 comments:

gemmak said...

Fab philosophy, tis we that do this stuff, bullshit or any other major pain in the arse may focus our minds but it's us that choose how to react! ;o)

mac_kix_windoze said...

Bugger bugger bugger!!!! Why, oh why do you ALWAYS manage to get this written so well???? Damn good job you're a journalist else I'd suggest you needed to be one. And, dammit, I used "journey" in my own post today grrrr, better go and change that for something else, lest I'm accused of having a wanky blog. LOL. And as from January, ALL cancer patients are exempt for prescription charges. Email me if you want more info. You may still be able to get exemption.....

Anice said...

I just love reading your blog..you say everything I hear in my head..just much better!! I haven't suffered with cancer but I have MS and I have changed. I now run my own business..I also shout at the TV when sad little bints on reality TV can't go on because they have broken a nail! It makes me feel better!! So does reading your blog xx

drollgirl said...

you rock.

Freudus said...

Bloody brilliant. Although I'll have you know Ford Focuses rock. x

Kathi said...

Damn straight, love...and furthermore, just because so far breast cancer hasn't killed me doesn't make me LUCKY! I know with near certainty that I am not a homicidal maniac because I have not yet murdered anyone who has had the idiocy to tell me I was "lucky" in some fashion during this Big Adventure. Lucky would have been no cancer in the first place. I had plenty of character before I had breast cancer. I did NOT need this kind of adversity to build any more of it.

XXOO from across the pond.

Chapati said...

amazing as usual!

Beanoz said...

Hi,from a English lass in Australia who is a few months ahead of you in the 'experience'. Thank you yet again for putting into words some of the thoughts which swirl in my head. You truely are amazing and I really do get a boost when I see you have posted another blog.

TH said...

I’ve gone all warm and glowey from the sister thing. And Si wants to know if the underwear you’re bragging about is a certain pair of Dave Grohl G-strings... x

Blatter said...

I love your style of writing - plain, open, intelligent, truthful, honest and extremely heart-warming. You make me want to be a better person.

annie2 said...

As someone who is going through exactly the same journey at age 27, but about 2 months behind you this blog has me laughing and relating to you all the time. I love how blunt you are, and its the first time I've smiled all day.
Thank you and keep them coming
x

Mary Adams said...

It's lovely to feel the optimism and total positiveness in your latest post....and the utter contempt you rightly give to the Cancer ( How dare it take any credit for changing you,m or making you "a better person"!)....As always, a great blog, and can't wait for the next one. X
Mary

jooliargh said...

LOL @ "a good shit changes you". Making a mental note to use that if an appropriate situation should ever arise... (I will credit you, of course)

Anonymous said...

do you not get free prescriptions?! i thought you did x