On Friday, a friend hosted a Macmillan coffee morning at her home. There were pretty cups and saucers, good coffee, delicious cake aplenty, and a jolly time was had by all. There was no mention of cancer, and no need to mention cancer, because among us was an unspoken understanding that all present had been touched by the disease in one way or another. It felt to me like a silent united force – cake-eaters coming together to enjoy ourselves in defiance of cancer.
However, when I left, I felt reflective, a touch gloomy. Many of us had been bereaved as a result of cancer’s coup, and counting the toll made me think along the clichéd lines of ‘battling’, ‘fighting’, ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. These are words that cancer patients tend not to like as they apportion success, failure and blame, but none the less have a natural place in the language of the disease. It is fact that there is a worldwide mission to find ever more effective treatments for the many and varied ways cancer can manifest, and no doubt it’s a fight.
Eating cake seems like rather a pleasant way to beat cancer, but for an individual to defeat cancer, it’s always necessary to pay a much higher, more personal, physiological price. That price may be a part of your bowel along with its function, your reproductive organs along with your fertility, part of a vital organ, even an arm or a leg, or as in my case, a breast.
When I look at the possibilities, a breast seems a pretty paltry fee. Although in the shadow of death, any non-vital body part can be considered redundant, some are certainly more redundant than others. To give a leg would have been much greater collateral than a breast, which I do miss but its loss does not compromise my life unduly. Yes, a breast has an important function but the deal left me with one functioning mammary gland and I was still able to feed our baby – for a few weeks at least, before my milk was contaminated by cytotoxic drugs. And then the formula took over, and seemed to do a good job.
Because I was pregnant when I was given a diagnosis of recurrence, but lucky enough to keep the baby, any price to rid the disease seemed cheap. After all, I was cutting a deal for two lives here, not just my own. Giving up the breast was a bargain. It was a bargain even though after the mastectomy, the slicing and dicing in the laboratory showed there was no cancer in the breast after all; the cancer was all in and around the lymph system.
The experience of undergoing cancer treatment has been to me a bit like playing a part in a sci-fi movie. There definitely hasn’t been any glamour associated with acting, but there were times I felt just like an actor playing a role, so surreal did my circumstances seem. But more to the point, I have witnessed an enormous collaborative effort made by medics far and wide that reinforce the idea that we do battle with this disease.
The team of intellect working to save my life was humbling. I knew it wasn’t personal, that I was anonymous to them and only a statistic to boost or sully their professional pride. But I didn’t mind. I felt protected, considered, and that I was receiving the best treatment possible.
When it came to radiation, the sci-fi theme exploded into something like a dream. The state-of-the-art equipment at the Royal Marsden was mind boggling. The bed that raised and tilted to within a fraction of a centimetre, the red light beams that marked the path of the deadly radiation to be delivered for a matter of seconds only, before it fried me along with the cancer. The staff spoke in tongues while I lay like putty in their hands as they positioned me to the correct millimetre. Once they were happy, they smiled at me kindly and retreated behind the safety screen, where they watched me through a window. With a rush of adrenalin, I imagined the radiation entering my body. It was a weapon of war, sent in to destroy. There was a whole team on my side using millions of pounds worth of equipment, attempting to kill a microscopic, alien life form inside me.
I have experienced the fight against cancer from many perspectives and paid the price in various ways, and eating delicious cake in return for a donation has definitely been my favourite battle yet.