“It’s the Best Cancer to Have”. MY ARSE.

This happens a lot when you get diagnosed with breast cancer. You get told “it’s the best cancer to have”. Family say it. Friends say it. Just people. Even oncologists say it. They say it because they want to make you feel better about that horrendous diagnosis. We even said it to our daughters when we told them about my diagnosis. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, and I understand the intentions are good, but now that I’m on the other side of active treatment, and staring down the barrel of long term hormone treatment, still feeling right there ‘in it’, I’m not sure how helpful it was, as I stand here now. 

Let’s just unpack it for a moment. Breast Cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with 1 in 7 developing it in their life-time (once more, just to drive that home, ONE IN SEVEN.). During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the UK alone, 5,000 people will be diagnosed.

What this means, is that Breast Cancer is a loud, hungry beast that attracts loads of dosh for research and support services that ultimately benefits the patients.  Critically, the survival rates are good – nearly 9 out of 10 women will survive for five years or more. There’s a lot to be glad about, statistically speaking.

But here’s the thing, there are humans at the end of those statistics and, when people refer to the survival rates, even the Oncologists, they’re not telling you how they achieve those stats.

What you very quickly realise when you’re down there in the trenches is that the treatments are still surprisingly, almost comically, blunt. Caught early enough, the approach is still very much to cut the cancer out, and/or chop the cancery bits off the healthy bits, nuke the bits, and/or deliver a whole-body contaminant to poison the cancery bits, and then hope for the best.

80% of breast cancers diagnosed have a hormone receptor which means the cancer grows with oestrogen. This is what I have. Or had? Difficult to say. Now on the other side of active treatment, there’s no way of telling if there’s any more cancer floating about and this is why the treatments are so brutal. The solution in my case, following phase one active treatment, is to create an environment in the human body where the cancer can’t grow back. Ergo, strip out all the oestrogen. Let’s take aaaall the oestrogen out of that woman, starve the bastard cancer, job’s a goodun’.

The result is an extreme, medically-induced menopause more akin to chemical castration that throws the surviving human into a bit of a living shit-show. Honestly, writing it, it sounds like the ‘in theory only’ solution you’d come up with on a work away-day shortly after building the raft with 3 planks to get you across the metaphorical river. I mean, you wouldn’t would you…?

The current ‘survival strategy’ after the last batch of trials is to keep women on hormone treatment for ten years instead of five because data shows it cuts the incidence of recurrence by a third. It does not, however, impact on overall survival rate according to this report. Call me naive, but that just sounds like a really expensive delaying tactic, not a scientifically brilliant line of treatment.

Now, I am going to say this with caution because I am sensitive to the ‘triple neggers’ out there who don’t have hormone treatment to fall back on once they’ve gone through the un-holy trinity of surgery/chemo/radio, which is another point in itself really, but surviving ‘the best cancer to have’ comes at great cost to quality of life, physically and mentally. The triple-neggers live in mortal fear of breast cancer’s incurable return, and the hormone-pozzies are a shell of their former-selves, moody as fuck, dry foof, rattling around with crumbling bones, knowing full well that IF they can endure this bollocks for 10 years, there are no actual guarantees of staying cancer free after it. Don’t get me started on the incurables.

I am still in the very early days of my hormone treatment and at the moment it’s really tough going particularly from a mood perspective; CAN YA’ TELL?!!!!. The big question is, I suppose, could I have handled a bit more realism back then about what the future held? In truth yes, or a least not an untruth delivered to ease the pain then to make the future harder.  ‘The best cancer to have’ made it sound like it was the easy one. ‘The best cancer to have’ made me think it was something I could just just do for a bit and walk away from.  The reality is, I am in treatment now for the next ten years even with an early-stage diagnosis (it was in half a lymph node. HALF). If I choose to forgo that treatment (there’s a 1 in 4 drop out rate, according to my oncologist), I risk incurable cancer spread.

But Can I tell you something else ‘the best cancer to have’ does? It engenders future guilt in the breasties for struggling with their treatment. Seven months on, it makes me feel like I should put up and shut up because I’m ‘lucky’ to have this cancer. Suck it up sister, you’re alive!  ‘The best cancer to have’ leaves a bitter taste in my mouth

All cancer is shit. Whether you’re walloped by chemo, cut to pieces, having an organ re-shuffle, shitting through your stomach, radiation on your unmentionables, losing limbs, or drained of your womanly hormones, all the treatment is horrendous and society needs to quit with the ranking business. So what should people say instead?

When in doubt, go full empathy. Maybe something like, “what a bucket of absolute shite mate. I’m not gonna lie, you’ve got tough times ahead but one way or another you’ll get through it, mark my words, and I will be with you 100% of the way, even when you’re a moody cow. Fancy a foot massage?”.

This blog was written on the 1st Day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2019. I’ve only recently had my ovaries switched off and started on aromatase inhibitors so there was a bit of angry-typing going on here – I don’t want to diminish the sterling work done by everyone in the NHS and anyone who works in cancer research. Although, please do hurry up with the cure ‘yo? And as for the rest of you… for the love of god, know your normal. Now go check your boobs.

Shit. I spilt my feelings on the internet.

So anyway, there I was over the summer, standing there, outside the tent,  thinking, HOW did this happen? Cancer, that too, but the sharing thing. What the actual. Here’s how I overcame the overshare cringe factor. 

Historically, pre-C, I mean, I really wasn’t the person that shared their feelings online. GOD NO. We didn’t really do feelings growing up in our family, latterly at least. It was the 90s. Feelings hadn’t been invented yet. Unless it was ironic, sardonic, cynical, sarcastic, cloaked in dark humour, or even better, down right insulting, but in a funny-ha-ha-just-for-laffs kind of way, then it wasn’t worth the air time. It was colourful and competitive.  I rattled through my 20s and 30s, not quite stiff-upper-lipping it, but just being relentlessly positive. Always just fine thanks very much. Busy. 

And then the cancer thing happened and… I didn’t quite panic. I just knew that if I didn’t out myself I would ‘crawl into a horrible dank cancer hole’, is what I wrote in that first instagram post on my private page, “and that would be a pretty dark place to hang out in”. Plus, ‘I’VE GOT CANCER!!!’ is kind of on loud speaker in your head the whole time for the first couple of weeks and I really felt the need to get it out before I imploded. Outing the cancer and talking about it reduced its power and kept me out of the dark.

So, to blog, to instagram was a considered decision at the time, but I really started to question it over the summer. Partly because I’d reached the end of active treatment. Where am I going with all this now? But also because  it ‘aint always easy, this sharing business, especially when your chin’s on the floor. I found it much easier before, when I was pumped full of adrenaline and gratitude and just being carried along by the weird cancer train (at break neck speed, doors very locked, me, game face on at the window). And partly because when you’re low, everything really does seem a bit pointless doesn’t it? Especially blogging and the socials. Dark humour lost its place. “Today I am sad. Today I am less sad. Today I am glad. Today I am mad. Are you sad or glad? I think I am actually going quite mad.” 

My holiday read was  ‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell, the biography of the French renaissance Nobleman Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Paragraph one page one stopped me in my tracks. She’d nailed how I was feeling about it all.

The 21st Century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages and pods brings up thousands of  individuals, fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves. They diarise, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networks delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.

Well, quite.

I mean, who wants to contribute to that doleful picture? When very low (and cynical), all around me, all I saw was cancer giving people permission to talk about themselves, ad nauseam, under the guise of ‘raising awareness’ or helping people.  

I read on. I learned that Montaigne is in fact credited as the original life ‘regurgitater’. Following a near-death experience, (which he wrote about at length and in such a way that me thinks he might also have been the original Drama Queen), he came to two key conclusions that helped him live better.

First, that the key to stop worrying about death (he was obsessed for a while) is to stop worrying about death. You’ll know that to do when you get there, it almost certainly won’t be as bad as you think it will be, and you’ll probably be relieved by the time it comes.

Second, he started writing. About everything. Reams of stream of consciousness-style essays that quite often went nowhere or came to any conclusion. Observing, meandering, ruminating, all the while trying to make sense of the here and now and him in it. It made him ‘pay attention’. He regularly forced his mind out of thinking to pure observation and then wrote about it. Early mindfulness I suppose. A lot of it wasn’t even very good, apparently (which gives me hope). The most important thing is, his writing helped him rise out of his personal ditch. 

Reading those first few chapters got me thinking and in part (along with a general lifting of mood) helped me feel better about publishing blogs again. And better about reading everyone else’s ‘festival of self’, appreciating and participating. What he did in the 15th Century really isn’t that different to how we do things now – it’s just now we have more tech.

It somehow made me feel less like I was contributing to the horrifying narcissism of the modern social media-led world and more like a contemporary version of what we humans have been doing for a very long time. “Writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity”. Better.

So, I’ve come full circle. Although I won’t always find it easy, I’ve decided I’m kind of OK with this blogging malarky again. For writing for writing’s sake, not expecting anything of it, or worrying about what it makes me. It’s just my own little way of getting through this weird old time and keeping my head above water.  It makes sense to get it all out on the table while it’s happening and while I’m feeling it, because that’s when it matters to me and who fucking cares if it’s a bit.. well… sharey. The truth is, it doesn’t even really matter if no one reads it. This is the first blog I’ve published since June and I’ve got a stack of writing in my book. So. Here we go. I’m strapping myself in. It’s time to Be More Montaigne. 

P.s. Can I just add one caveat to that? if he turns out to be a total pillock, well, let’s just bear in mind that I haven’t finished the book yet?