Thursday, 26 November 2009

Say what you say.

One of the many ace things about writing this blog (besides not having to repeat myself about health stuff, the lovely folk I’ve met through it, and being able to tell people how I’m really feeling without having to stutter, blush and shuffle my feet nervously) is the immediate feedback I get.

‘How many are you up to?’ Dad will ask in a phonecall from his car on the way home from work.
‘Eh?’ I’ll grunt.
‘Comments. How many? Because I checked just before I left and you had four, so I was just wondering whether you’d had any more since I got in the car?’
‘No Dad, still four,’ I’ll say, with my head tilted to one side in that ‘aww, ain’t he cute’ way that I used to reserve for Grandad when he’d falsely boast to everyone at the nursing home about his granddaughter’s Business Studies degree.

‘You’ve got another one,’ Dad will say in a mid-morning call from his desk the following day.
‘Eh?’ I’ll reply again, wondering what it could possibly be that I’ve suddenly got another one of before my third brew of the day has had its chance to wake me up.
‘Comment. Another comment. I just saw it. Who’s that then?’
‘I don’t know, Dad,’ I’ll say. ‘I don’t know everyone who comments on the blog, y’know.’
‘Oh right, okay,’ he’ll say. ‘I wonder who all these people are, then?’

My parents are baffled by the freedom of reply that the internet offers. ‘Who’s this @lilianavonk?’ Mum will ask after reading my tweets. ‘Do you know her through @zuhamy?’
‘I don’t know them personally, Mum,’ I’ll explain. ‘Just through Twitter.’
‘Oh. But how do they know you?’
‘The blog, probably.’
‘Oh... Oh, right,’ she’ll say, in a confused manner that suggests we’ll be having the same conversation again next week.

It’s not that my folks are idiot technophobes who don’t know the difference between a weblog and a wiki. It’s just that in the same time it’s taken their daughter to get through – and, mostly, over – The Bullshit, they’ve also had to come to terms with the online world in which she now operates. A world in which your friends are no longer just the people you meet at the pub, but the people you meet through the internet-specific personality you’ve created. And that kind of seismic shift is bewildering enough for my generation – who laughed when given an email address upon enrolling at uni, as though it were as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike – let alone their own.

‘I’ve left a comment,’ said Dad last week, seconds after reading my The other side of defence post.
‘I know, I just got the email,’ I said.
‘I hope I’ve not offended you,’ he continued, sheepishly. ‘It’s just that I wanted to comment that it was fair enough for Anonymous to have their say. Who is Anonymous, anyway?’
‘I don’t know, Dad, they’re anonymous.’
‘Oh, right.’
‘And don’t be daft, shitface – of course you’ve not offended me,’ I said, easing his worry with a choice pet name.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘I just felt strongly about the comments people had made, is all, so I thought I’d add my tuppence worth.’
‘Fair enough,’ I answered.

And fair enough indeed. Because that’s what we love about blogging and social networking and the like, right? The ability to say what we want to say. The ability to open ourselves up to hearing other people’s opinions – whether we like them or not. The ability to respond immediately to something we’ve read, heard or seen, without having to endure endless hold-music on automated phone lines, or decide whether sincerely or faithfully is the right sign-off.

Last week, I blogged about asking Smiley Surgeon for an elective mastectomy, but having my mind put to rest when he suggested otherwise. Anonymous then sparked a debate with the comment that post-breast-cancer, she’d decided to have further surgery herself and had never regretted it, and that – were The Bullshit ever to return – I’d be the one having to go through chemo again, not Smiley Surgeon. And, as I say – fair enough.

Different bloggers deal with their comments in different ways. I particularly like the way that Bete de Jour responds to each of his readers and, much as I’d like to tell you that I don’t do the same because I think you’ve heard enough from me already, the truth is that he is an exceptionally dedicated blogger and I’m a lazy fatarse. But while the I’ve-said-my-piece approach is more my style, in this case I think that – wonderful as it was for my Dad to do so – the comments on the aforementioned post didn’t ought to be tied up by my old man.

The thing is, there’s some stuff I didn’t say in that post which, in the spirit of honesty, I probably ought to decant. I didn’t say, for instance, that as much as I thought it might be the right thing to do to have an elective mastectomy, I was hugely uneasy about the idea of losing another nipple. Something I suspect I’ve never made clear is that, in losing my left tit, I’ve also lost the sensation – that glorious, glorious sensation – that came with it. So by choosing to do away with my right’un too, I worry that I’d effectively be doing the same with my enjoyment of sex. You might think that’s like refusing chemo because I want to keep my hair. I prefer to think of it in terms of wanting as pleasurable a life as possible.

Something else I didn’t say – but which regular readers of this blog will doubtless know already – is that I trust Smiley Surgeon implicitly, and have complete confidence in his opinions. If Smiley Surgeon said that buying Toploader albums or supporting Nottingham Forest or wearing shell-suits would improve my chances of avoiding Round 2 with The Bullshit, I’d do it. And if Smiley Surgeon said that an elective mastectomy were a good idea, I’d be in a hospital gown faster than you can say fun-bags, quickly brushing aside my orgasm worries (while immediately sending off for an Ann Summers catalogue).

So while we’re sharing here, I might as well also admit to initially being a bit defensive when Anonymous posted her comment.
‘Ere, have a read of this,’ I said to P, thrusting my iPhone into his palm. ‘Does that mean that if I ever get cancer again, it’ll be my fault because I didn’t have an elective mastectomy?’
‘Course it doesn’t,’ he said.
‘But is that what she’s suggesting?’ I persisted.
‘I don’t think it is, babe. I think she’s just saying that’s how she felt.’
‘Okay, that’s fair enough then.’
‘It was right for her, Lis – that doesn’t mean it’s right for you too. You’ve got to find your own way.’
‘Hm,’ I hummed. ‘You’re always the voice of reason.’
‘Weeeell,’ said P, purposely not disagreeing. ‘It’s each to their own, innit? That’s what you always say.’
‘Yeah, I s’pose I do. But for the record, if I do get The Bullshit again, I simply WILL NOT ACCEPT that it was my fault, okay?’
‘Well it won’t be your fault, babe, so why should you?’
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’

The problem, of course, was all mine – and not what Anonymous posted. I’m a touchy little sod at the best of times (one school teacher once wrote on my report that I was ‘at times sensitive to criticism’ – and how right she was, the nit-picking bitch), so being forced to consider a future in which I could have done something to prevent a recurrence of The Bullshit instantly got my back up, and wrongly so. Because P and my Dad were right: though I don’t know her personally (I think), I do know that Anonymous’ intentions with her comment weren’t to piss me off, but simply to communicate how she had dealt with breast cancer. The exact same thing I’m doing right now.

To use a wanky phrase I promise you’ll never read on this blog again, the problem with putting yourself out there (yeesh) online is that people will have an emotional response to you. They might pity you; they might warm to you; they might think you’re a whingeing old git and never click on your site again. They might feel protective of you; they might want to offer you advice; they might become as defensive of you as you are of the comments that make you reconsider your decisions. But whatever they might think of you and what you have to say, your job as a blogger is to make like David Dimbleby (minus the increasingly dodgy ties) and point your pen in the direction of whoever wants to add, in the words of my old man, ‘their tuppence worth’.

Which leads me onto something else I haven’t said. I might try to act cool when Dad rings me to talk about new comments on my blog, but his excitement when a new one appears is nothing on mine. So, whatever it is you’ve said, however often you’ve said it, or whatever it is you’re yet to say – I thank you.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A parting gesture.

One of the loveliest things about writing this blog is the number of friends I’ve made as a result of it. Not friends in the traditional sense – rather, people I’ve never met but often have more regular contact with than folk I’ve known for years. One of them is Andy Greig, writer of the Grumpy Old Git blog (or @mac_kix_windoze to those of you on Twitter).

A fellow Bullshitter (his term, not mine!), Andy was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his right femur in February 2008, aged 41 – which is at once tragically young and also unusually old for osteosarcoma; hence his ‘Grumpy Old Git’ handle.

Andy and I have been in touch for a year or so, sending each other updates on our treatment, commenting on each other’s blog posts, joining up expletives to make super-swearwords and keeping up the spirit of sticking one to The Bullshit with as much humour as we could manage. 

When Stephen Fry dubbed me a ‘cancer bitch’, Andy looked into getting it printed on a T-shirt. When my old laptop imploded into a sea of indecipherable code, Andy coached me through the steps to retrieve my data. And when my pubes grew back unusually straight, Andy was the first to tell me that it was both normal and temporary (but that, y’know, P might prefer them gone altogether).

When it came to scrapping through cancer, I was the Anakin to Andy’s Yoda, horribly experienced as he was with The Bullshit thanks to the discovery of secondary tumours in his lungs. Real persistent little fuckers, too. The kind that saw him repeatedly in hospital for more treatment than he ever could have bargained for, but which he endured with an enviable calm, a defiant Blitzkreig spirit and a wry sense of humour. Until this weekend.

With apocalyptic rain pouring from angry skies – as if to forewarn the world of such a miserable, miserable day – Andy died on Saturday, at home with the adored wife, son and three daughters he so often spoke about.

‘The thing that I love and hate about cancer,’ Andy once said to me, ‘is that it's changed me. I hate it because it's changed me physically and I'll never be the same again, even if I'm cured. I hate it because it messes with my head. I hate it because it makes me a victim. But I love the way it has changed me for the better too. It's changed my outlook, it's changed my attitude to people and it's made me appreciate life more than I ever thought I could.’

I never met Andy. But that’s not to say that he didn’t make an instant impression on me, or that I wasn’t incredibly fond of him. As I told him a number of times, he was, quite simply, ace. And if I’m saying those things on the strength of only having known Andy through the glorious world of the internet, then I do hope that his family and friends will be able to take some comfort in having been lucky enough to know – in person – such a demonstrably top bloke.

Here’s to you, Andy Greig.

Andy was fundraising for the Bone Cancer Research Trust. 
If you can, please donate by clicking here

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The other side of defence.

‘Ivewrittenabookandyoureinit,’ I clumsily exhaled in a single, drawling syllable to Smiley Surgeon. ‘I mean, not by name. You’re not in it by name.’ (I thought best not to reveal my pet name for him at this stage. He can discover that himself, once I’ve taken my advance and emigrated to Hawaii.) ‘I haven’t mentioned any medical staff by name,’ I continued, awkwardly. ‘But it’s a book about this whole experience, you see. It’s a book about all of this,’ I went on, gesturing overanimatedly with open arms, as though I were a butler introducing him to a feast at a palatial dining table. ‘And so I’ve had to mention the people who’ve helped me through it, because they’re integral to the story.’

I realised I hadn’t yet looked him in the eye, and quickly met his gaze with, ‘But it’s all good stuff! Very good. Really very good. Of course it is; it’s all true.’ I forced myself to stop talking.
‘Well, wow, that’s wonderful,’ he said, obviously entertained by my clumsiness. ‘When will it be out?’
‘April. End of April,’ I beamed, catching sight of P beside me, sitting relaxed in his tub chair, smirking like a front-row punter at a comedy club.
‘And who’s publishing it?’
‘Arrow at Random House,’ I answered, simultaneously shooting P a stop-finding-this-so-entertaining look.
‘Oh!’ said Surprised Surgeon. ‘Random House! They’re big!’
‘Um, yes,’ I said. ‘I suppose they are.’

For a split second, I took offence. ‘What, did you think I’d be publishing it myself like some kind of Mel C solo album?’ I thought, mildly hurt by his surprise. But then, I realised, of course he was surprised. Smiley Surgeon is one of the few people in my stratosphere who doesn’t know about this blog – who still doesn’t know about this blog – so, as far as he was concerned, I was just some part-time branded content editor who figured she could sell books, like a call-centre worker at an X Factor audition proclaiming to be the new Mariah Carey.

The door handle turned, and we craned our necks to watch a cheery Always Right Cancer Nurse (who’s Always Right Breast Nurse in the book, just to confuse matters) and her equally cheery sidekick, Other Always Right Cancer Nurse pull up chairs to P’s right, each giving him a pat on the shoulder as they did.
‘Lisa’s written a book!’ exclaimed Smiley Surgeon. ‘And Random House are publishing it!’ (Despite his happy demeanour, Smiley Surgeon isn’t a man to often warrant exclamation marks at the end of his dialogue, but in this case I assure you they’re necessary.)

‘Ooh!’ they both chirped, as I wondered whether Other Always Right Cancer Nurse might take offence at not being a character in The C Word. ‘Will you send us a copy?’ asked Always Right Cancer Nurse The First.
‘Oh yes, you must,’ interrupted Smiley Surgeon. ‘Signed, please.’
‘Haha!’ I giggled, trying to be coy but secretly lapping up their interest. ‘Well, if you’re happy for me to devalue it with my scrawl, that’s your call,’ I said, trotting out my now-standard line. ‘But yes, I’ll make sure you have one as soon as I do.’

There was a reason for my consultation other than breaking the book news, of course. As far as Smiley Surgeon was concerned, this was an appointment at which he’d have his first chance to evaluate my New Tit since my nupple was tattooed. P winked in my direction as SS raved about my falsie. ‘It’s a really wonderful result,’ he beamed, as though looking at a Monet rather than a fake boob. He studied it with a furrowed brow, mentally patting himself on the back. I half expected him to do one of those Ali G-style finger-snaps. ‘It’s a shame I don’t have my camera today,’ he said, ‘as I’d love to show this in my lectures as an example of an excellent cosmetic outcome.’
‘Whoa now, steady on,’ I thought, instead opting for a calmer, ‘Oh, blimey.’
‘No, I’m serious,’ he said, gesturing at me to pull my dress back up. ‘I do hope you’re as pleased with the result as I am.’ (It had never occurred to me that surgeons have the same pride in the aesthetics of their work as Michelin-starred chefs. Perhaps I should pitch Mastersurgeon to the BBC?)
‘I really am,’ I assured him. ‘You’ve done a wonderful job.’

Perhaps it was because he’d done such a brilliant number on my New Tit that I then brought up a concern I’d spent some months agonising over. For Smiley Surgeon, this appointment was for the purpose of the above paragraph. For me, however, it was to bring up the issue of elective mastectomy.

Being, as I am, at a higher risk than most of getting The Bullshit again, it’s fair to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about what’s going on beneath my right nipple. And so, probably unsurprisingly, I had been considering the removal of my right breast to further reduce that risk. ‘Considering’ puts it lightly, actually. I’d done more than that. I’d read excessively about the procedure, had long conversations with P, my folks and my best mates about their opinions and had even looked ahead to see which month might be best for me to have the operation.

It’s perhaps a fatalistic view but, in my mind, I remain utterly convinced that this wasn’t to be my only scrape with The Bullshit. I don’t have any evidence to support that opinion – and perhaps it’s more a case of wanting to be prepared for a diagnosis next time, and not have shock make such a fool of me – and I’m loath to give such a wanky excuse as ‘I’ve just got a feeling about it’, but the truth is, I kind of have. I’m not being defeatist – I like to think of it more as accepting. And in accepting that there’ll be a rematch with The Bullshit, I’m more than prepared to pull on my gloves ready for round two, arming myself with all the defensive tactics that medical science can offer, be they an elective mastectomy, the removal of my ovaries, a hysterectomy… whatever. I will simply do anything necessary to (a) reduce my risk of this happening again and (b) make sure I’m as prepared for another cancer battle as a person can possibly be.

Which is why, prior to our conversation about my book, I asked Smiley Surgeon if he’d remove my right breast, with a tone that was less ‘if’ and more ‘when’.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘I really would advise against it,’ he continued.
‘But I want to do whatever I can to stop this happening again,’ I protested.
‘Of course you do, that’s perfectly natural,’ he added. ‘But I promise you – I’m going to keep you under such close observation that if ever there was an occurrence of cancer in your right breast, I will get to it.’ I instantly believed him, trusting him, as I do, with my life. 
‘Lisa,’ he assured me, with a quick look towards my left tit, ‘It will NEVER get to that stage again.’
‘Okay,’ I answered sheepishly, trying not to cry.
‘I’m not saying that there never will be another cancer,’ Smiley Surgeon went on, ‘Just that if there is, we will find it, and I will do anything necessary to remove it.’
‘Good,’ I said, still swallowing tears.
‘But let’s not put you through that unnecessarily,’ he said. ‘Not after everything you’ve already been through.’
P reached out to hold the hand that was wiping nervous sweat onto my knee. A moment ago, it had been clenched into a fist but now, with the reassurance of the only other man I’d trust with my chest, it was relaxing.

‘So come back to see me in June,’ said Smiley Surgeon at the end of our appointment as P and I were leaving the room. ‘We’ll do your mammogram then and I’ll make sure you have the results the same day.’
‘That’s brilliant,’ I said, remembering those torturous, sickening few days earlier this year between my scan at another hospital and the phonecall with my results.
‘No problem,’ he answered. ‘But send me a book first, won’t you?’
‘Gladly,’ I smiled.