It’s with more than a little trepidation, then, that I’m about to break with tradition and admit to having done something right. I’ll preface this by saying that the right thing I did was more by accident than design – and I didn’t realise until recently that I’d even done it in the first place – but, sod it: I made a smart move and I’m
aware that I sound like a pretentious egotist not afraid to say it. It’s very simple, really: since the moment I was diagnosed with The Bullshit, I’ve never allowed anybody to see me looking ill.
That might not sound like much of an achievement, but allow me to explain. See, for so long, painting a face/outfit/attitude over the rather less grey/smart/chirpy stuff underneath was simply about wanting people to see me as Just Me. Not Cancer Me or Ill Me or Weak Me. Just Me. (Slippery slope into third person begins here…) As far as I was concerned, it was a short-term solution to a short-term problem; a way of sparing my – and everyone else’s – blushes. But, lately, I’ve come to realise that this accidentally genius tactic has worked in far bigger ways than just saving me from embarrassment. Because, actually – if you’ll forgive me speaking on behalf of everyone I know – I really don’t think that anybody actually does see me as ‘the one who had cancer’.
In many ways, that happening has been my biggest fear in all of this. Well, aside from the obvious. (‘The obvious’ being never getting to meet Dave Grohl.) The thing is, I can think of few things worse than forever being known as ‘the ill one’. It’d be like having a Spice Girl name that you can never shake. (Right now I’m having awful visions of a Toys R Us filled with unsold Cancer Spice dolls.)
Not that I could have blamed anyone but myself if it had happened, of course – I mean, I may have kept my ill look (in which I include my post-surgery look) firmly behind closed doors to anyone who wasn’t contractually or familially obliged to witness it, but I can’t exactly claim to have hidden myself away and quietly got on with things, instead choosing to broadcast my every symptom, appointment and bowel movement to the internet. But ultimately – for me at least – there’s a difference between how I want the world at large to see me, and how I want my mates to see me. In a wider sense, I’m proud to call myself a breast-cancer survivor – just as I’m proud to call myself a writer and a wife and a Derby County supporter (sometimes) – but it would be just plain weird if that were how my friends and family were to see me.
I’ve been back in the office again lately – after a somewhat stop-start year of working from home while having, and recovering from, surgery – and it’s that which has cemented my opinion that my steadfast refusal to reveal my ill face has paid off.
‘But you look so well!’ people say.
‘Aha!’ I think. ‘You should have seen me last week. Foiled again!’ (I’ve long fancied myself as a Scooby Doo villain.)
And then, once the yes-I’m-fine-thank-you stuff is done, we get on with it; whether ‘it’ is a chat about last night’s episode of Jersey Shore, or figuring out the best way to meet the requests of a client, or taking the piss about my terrible record of tea-making. And it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.
After surveying my newly reconstructed boob at my recent post-op appointment, Stunning Surgeon sat back at her desk, reclined in her chair, and, with a satisfied smile, told me: ‘Now go and live your life’.
‘We don’t need to see you now for another three months,’ she said.
‘Three months? Blimey,’ I answered, before completely abandoning all think-before-you-speak pretences with: ‘But what will you all be doing in the meantime?’ (I know. As if I’m their only patient.)
‘We’re doing a 10-year audit, actually,’ she revealed. ‘In fact, I wanted to tell you something – of all the women in your position that he…’ (‘he’ being Smiley Surgeon) ‘…has operated on in the last ten years, we haven’t had a single incidence of recurrence.’
‘And you’re not going to be the first one,’ added a finger-pointing Always-Right Cancer Nurse, more as a demand than a reassurance.
My elatedly stunned silence was interrupted by the arrival of The Man Himself.
‘So! Lisa!’ he beamed, ‘I hear you’re pleased with the reconstruction!’
‘SO delighted. SO, SO delighted,’ I enthused. ‘From the moment I opened my eyes I just knew it was perfect.’ (I figured it was only fair to lay it on thick, given the way I’d dissed his handiwork in our last appointment.)
‘I did think that you looked particularly happy on your way back down the corridor,’ he said.
‘I was! As soon as I woke up, I asked the nurse in recovery if I could have a look at it.’
‘Genuinely, though,’ I gushed, as P burned stop-embarrassing-yourself stares into the back of my head, ‘I just can’t ever thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me.’
What followed was one of those awkward little moments that you replay in your head for years, like the time I accidentally addressed my super-scary MD as ‘Kev’, or the night I absent-mindedly waved off a boy I’d kissed at my 12th birthday party with the words ‘Bye! Love you!’ as he climbed into his Dad’s car.
‘Aww,’ said Smiley Surgeon, extending his arm in a way that suggested he was about to rub me on the shoulder… but it turned out he was standing about five inches too far away to reach, and so missed, and hurriedly tucked his hand into his pocket. But that, I figured, was as close as we’re ever going to come to a hug. And since the intent to shoulder-pat was most definitely there, I took the moment lovingly in my palm, stashed it away in my heart in a little drawer marked ‘cherish’, and merrily left the hospital to ‘go and live my life’.
But it wasn’t just the contentment at my new tit, or the reuniting with my colleagues, or the incomparably comforting revelation of Stunning Surgeon that brought about a feeling of tentative finality to my latest dalliance with all things Bullshit – it was the behaviour of the people around me. The flowers have stopped being delivered. The cards have stopped arriving. The good-luck-with-surgery texts and how-did-it-go phonecalls have dwindled. The Facebook wall has fallen quiet. The Twitter concern has settled down. In another world, these might be the kind of things you’d whinge about. But not in this.
I’m sure that, at some point, a transition was made from Cancer Me to Just Me. But the beauty is, I’ve got no idea when it took place. I don’t know if it happened when I kicked the ass of the odds with preventative surgery, or before the final tweak to my new boob. Or even if it never happened at all and was only in my head. There was no sudden realisation; there was no moment of truth; there was no fanfare. Somewhere along the line, it just happened. (It’s not often I’ll disagree with Neil Young, but – as far as I’m concerned – it’s better to fade away than to burn out.) But however it came to be, I can’t deny that something lately has changed and, for the first time in a long time, I’ve felt more like
Lisa Lynch me.