Something happened recently that I didn’t blog about. Partly because I couldn’t get my head around it; partly because I didn’t know how to write about it. Not that I have been able to process it any better in the meantime, mind you, but if I’m going to stay true to my intention of blogging honestly about anything Bullshit-related, I’ve got no choice but to try.
Much as it felt that way when I was in the midst of it, I wasn’t the only person in my circle to have had to deal with The Bullshit. There was my auntie, for one. Diagnosed with a different type of Bullshit a mere fortnight before I was, she’s been my chemo-buddy, my wig-buddy and my regrowth-buddy, and we’ve understood each other like twin sisters, despite our 50-year age gap. Then there were the people I feel I know but have never met, having only shared conversations via my blog comments or email or Twitter or somesuch, who contacted me as a result of Alright Tit and have invited me through the door of their own encounters with cancer. And there was my friend Gill – a former boss who had been swearing her way through The Bullshit for six months before I found myself doing the same.
‘Guess what? Me too,’ I said to her in an email breaking my news. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, Mac,’ replied Gill, in her characteristic, short-cut-to-the-point way. ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you… it’s a rough ride ahead.’ And boy, was she right.
Gill and I were never meet-for-a-pint mates. We never bought each other birthday presents, we never went shopping together, and she wasn’t at my wedding. We were former colleagues who met up occasionally over noodles to talk music and men and gossip about the better times we’d had in our former workplace. We met when Gill took over editorship of a magazine I was working on, and promoted me to the position of her deputy. Cheeky, sharp-tongued, loud and brassy, Gill wasn’t everyone’s favourite choice for editor and, though she and I worked together in a productive way that surprised us both, I’d be lying if I said that she and I always saw eye to eye – unless, of course, the subject was music… in which case, we’d found in each other a fascinated ally in which to share in each other’s geekery.
With The Bullshit getting in the way of both of our abilities to keep in contact with anyone who wasn’t immediately under our noses, Gill and I had only infrequent contact during our treatment. And, several weeks ago, when sending out invites to my Super Sweet 30th, I learned – two months after the event – that Gill had died.
I would, of course, have been at her funeral. She and I had looked forward to comparing chemo-curls and trying on each other’s wigs once our treatment had finished, and that – fruitless as it may have been – would have been my chance to show her the post-Bullshit, new-look me that we’d talked about revealing to each other. But, alas, I was tragically late.
I sent a letter to her sister after hearing the news. And, of course, it wasn’t easy to write – not just because of the emotion involved, but also in avoiding the usual cancer sympathies that simply wouldn’t have done justice to the unforgettable Gill. I didn’t want to say, for instance, how sorry I was that Gill had ‘lost her battle’ with cancer. Gill shared my opinions on that kind of rhetoric – neither of us liked the implication that cancer was capable of ‘beating’ someone. Cancer, we agreed, isn’t a competition. You don’t choose to tackle it a certain way. You just get on with it in the only way you know how. It isn’t a fight that you win or lose – it’s simply an illness with different outcomes. Some of us are still here after experiencing it; some of us aren’t.
There’s a lot of talk of ‘positive mental attitude’ with regard to cancer which, I can’t help but think, simply points to the hopelessness that surrounds it. A positive attitude doesn’t make chemo work better or double the effectiveness of radiotherapy. What it can do, however, is give you a focus throughout the dark times, satisfy your sense of somehow being in control, and assure the people around you – truthfully or otherwise – that you’re on top of it. But PMA alone is, regrettably, not enough.
I don’t want to sound defeatist here. Nor do I want to deny myself the opportunity to celebrate the fortunate position I now find myself in. I’d love to be able to say with conviction that I kicked cancer’s ass. But, in truth, it kicked mine – to baldness and back. The language of triumph around cancer can be horribly misleading. Because, the reality is, I didn’t beat cancer. I just had the kind of cancer that could be treated, and a brilliant medical team to see to its eradication. My job was simply to allow them to do it; to accept the treatment; to accept the way that treatment would make me look and feel, and to hope for the best.
You might think that my opinion is pretty shitty, that it’s too harsh or that it’s not fair on those concerned. But, I’m afraid, so is cancer. I’m no braver than Gill was. I didn’t fight any harder. I was just really bloody lucky that cancer’s plans for me were different to its tragic intentions for her.