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The Cancer Crusade

Life After Cancer isn't a walk on the beach

People sound a little bonkers when they talk of cancer.

For the most part, they try to avoid the subject altogether. The word ‘CANCER’ is something of a Voldemort, little-used, as if speaking of it might somehow conjure it up. With its middle ‘C’, it sounds like a hissing snake: so insidious, so poisonous. And in reality, it really is.

Cancer raises the shadowy menace of death; something we don’t like to dwell on, thank you very much. After thousands of millennia you’d think the human race would have accepted its fate by now, but no.  Death threatens our very identity: our self-control; our free will. If our free will isn’t free, how can we be masters of our own destiny?  Do we ever really have control over our lives?

So to avoid a daily identity crisis, we deny our own mortality. We carry on believing we are in charge. This makes death a taboo subject. People are uncomfortable to talk and uncomfortable to listen. And I’m afraid cancer is lumped in the naughty box too.

But sometimes, the topic is thrust into the open – cancer no longer lurks in the neighbourhood, it strikes close to home. There is no avoiding it any longer. So we put our humanity to good use and apply our glorious imaginations. We believe in a realm where legends rule and clichés run amok. In this world cancer is all about war, with us the champion - fighting, and winning. We build cancer to mythic terms that puts us firmly back in charge.

Of course, I don’t need to state the obvious: this is a load of bollocks. We can’t really go to war with cancer, or fight it, or win at it. You know cancer isn’t a battle you can win or lose, because that implies all those who lost just didn’t try hard enough.

At points in my ‘Cancer Journey’ I could barely raise a finger, let alone fight some imaginary war. I wanted to cross my arms, pull my knees up, and hide under my duvet in the only place I felt safe – my bed at home. But I couldn’t lift my knees, let alone escape from the hospital. It never felt like I was winning a war, unless I was one of the poor sods left behind in a POW camp. But nevertheless, you play along with the clichés of the ‘Cancer Crusade’ and nod as people say, ‘You look great!’ You don’t want to disappoint them, but inside you feel bloody awful, and you’re scared.

This can all lead to confusion.

You long for your old, healthy life back, but you’re trapped as the protagonist in a legend that you never created. Of course, you want to believe you are a warrior. It provides a semblance of control; strength of mind is our new super-power. Our bodies are still our own. We still master our destiny. The Crusade gives us a hopeful purpose in the face of this invisible, impossible threat. And it means we avoid our mortality. Just so long as we try hard enough, death is no character in this story. So at night, darkened by pain or insomnia, you want to be believe you are immortal: you can fight it. You’re worried that by doubting the legend, and by being even vaguely negative, you’ll break the spell.

But then the world is changed and the spell breaks anyway.

You are in REMISSION, that long-awaited promise of survival. You can return to normal life. You no longer need to be that brave warrior.

But perhaps you find that sparkling new life isn’t quite so easy to come by. Without the crusade that has fuelled your existence and without your cheering supporters, you feel almost lost. And then when the euphoria of survival diminishes, the consequences of all this trauma sinks in. The anxiety that cancer might return looms…

You might not have experienced all or any of these feelings, but when treatment ends and remission begins, the transition can be a confusing one.  You are drawn back to the real world – relationships, work… life. The Cancer Crusade was useful back in the day: allowing you to avoid the unadulterated trauma of the experience, the gut-wrenching horror of facing your own mortality eye-to eye. With a positive attitude, you powered through the horrible treatments.  But now, post-trauma, without the Crusade on which to focus, stress might begin to unravel. All the adrenaline that is still pumping around your body has nothing on which to focus and nowhere to go.

In remission, that Crusade doesn’t do you any favours: awareness of your own mortality isn’t such a bad thing. Yes, the prospect that we will all die isn’t a terribly nice thought to pose. The concept that the world will continue without us seems anathema. Yet this awareness is one of the few gifts cancer can give you. It gives you a new perspective. Accepting that your time is limited gives you the courage to make brave choices – to be spontaneous, to welcome risk, to follow a long-hidden goal that you’ve been too embarrassed to even share.

Besides, remission returns the autonomy that makes the military narrative redundant – you just don’t need to fight any more. You no longer need to be in such a thrall to your medical team. Hospitals are no longer your permanent home-away-from-home. You can begin to find your place in the world again. Now is the time for the practical. You don’t need a mythical tale to spur you on any longer. You have rescued your free will and you can make choices about your future again. You don’t need myths and clichés to give you the illusion of control. You actually have it!

Life After Cancer needs a roaring lion

So take a step away from the Cancer Crusade; it masks far more valuable wisdom. You’ve gained something greater than the skills of a warrior and champion. You now have an awareness of your mortality. Whereas most have never witnessed the abyss of death, you’ve tight-roped the rocky chasm. You know you’re mortal now. And for that you are Brave. You are Courageous. But not because you’ve fought and won; rather you now have an awareness that life is finite. And that pushes you to do more, to be more, and to understand the world a little deeper. Mortality is a lesson usually reserved for the aged or dying. If you gain it early, it can be great wisdom indeed.

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Discussion

Gail Williams (not verified)

I totally get this, I hated people telling me I was fighting cancer, or saying I was some brave warrior. I didn't feel brave at all!

Anshuman

Me too! It just feels like this long tiring never ending journey. I guess it helps people who haven't been through it understand it, but it doesn't really help us, the patients, much at all.