by Joan Loughlin
‘I’m sorry to tell you, but you have cancer’. Since 2005 I’ve been told this three times. It doesn’t get any easier to hear those words but as any cancer patient will tell you, you become very familiar with all of the medical jargon very quickly. What is less easy to deal with is the way non- medical people speak to you.
It takes time to absorb the diagnosis and to come to terms with it. It’s frightening to have to face up to your own mortality and even harder to tell others about it. What’s often the hardest though is listening to how those around you react.
If I had a penny for the number of times I was told ‘you’ll beat this’ I would be a very rich woman. Nobody tells a diabetic or someone with coronary heart disease ‘you’ll beat this’ they just turn up with the grapes and flowers and wish you well. I get fed up smiling and saying to people ‘I’ll do my best’ when what I really want to do is choke them. ‘You’ll beat this’ just piles on the pressure. The patient is immediately on a guilt trip. You feel that if it all goes wrong you are somehow to blame. As so many people have faith in you to ‘beat it’ if your scans come back and the cancer has spread you put off telling the ‘you’ll beat this’ people –they believed in you and you feel you are letting them down.
Then you might start chemotherapy – or as referred to by many as ‘gruelling chemotherapy’. Who the hell decided this was a good way to refer to chemo? Folk already scared out of their wits by their diagnosis now have to face a treatment that has been demonised by the media. Chemo is not gruelling, the side effects are (in some cases) extremely unpleasant. I’ve done two lots over the years, initially six infusions of a chemo called FEC. I had it every three weeks for almost six months and for me, apart from losing my hair the absolute worst thing was the effects the steroids I had to take had, the chemo itself although unpleasant, was doable. My most recent chemo was Paxlitaxol. I had it every week for twenty-six weeks on the trot. Because of the premeds, I slept through almost every infusion. Again losing my hair was the most difficult thing followed by trying to shower with a picc line. The actual chemo was ok and certainly not gruelling. That phrase needs to go!
Another phrase that drives me demented is ‘battling’ cancer. Absolutely nobody battles cancer! Patients take their treatment and hope for the best. We can do NOTHING about the outcome. We place our trust in the medics looking after us, the surgeons, the oncologists, the nurses, the pharmacists dispensing our take home drugs. We have faith not battling skills.
I have a friend whose brother died from cancer. This lady took great offence when I posted something on social media about battling cancer posts driving me insane. She insisted her brother had battled right until the end. Her brother, like the rest of us wanted to live for his family. He took his drugs and did what he was told to do, but his treatment did not work. He didn’t lose any battle with cancer, his treatment just failed against the cancer he had. It was terribly bad luck, but that’s the way it is, we are all unique, I might have an identical cancer to X and the treatment might work for X and not for me. X is lucky and I am not.
I’m currently living with stage 4 breast cancer and bone secondaries. The treatment I had in 2005 gave me a great life. (Mastectomy, chemo and radiation therapy) I was re-diagnosed in 2017 and then surgery was my only option. I got another four great years. Last year I was re-diagnosed again. This time the cancer is different, it’s far more aggressive and much more difficult to treat. I am treatable but not curable. That does not mean I am giving up. I can’t ‘beat it’, I’ve had my ‘gruelling’ IV chemotherapy and I am now on oral chemo for as long as I live. I’m ‘battling’ on – or in other words I am taking the advice of my medics, taking the tablets and hoping for a long stretch of life ahead.
The media demonise cancer too. June Brown recently died, her death was announced on the news with no embellishment – and yes, I know she was old, but cause of death was not given. If anybody famous dies from cancer no matter how young or old you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be announced as ‘Joe Bloggs aged xx has died from cancer – why do they do that? It really isn’t anyone’s business except family.
I’ve two friends who were prescribed the same treatment I am now on. One, Elizabeth is on this drug for five years now and is doing great, the other, Cathy died two months after she commenced oral chemo.
Both wanted to live. They didn’t fight their cancer they just wanted it to leave their bodies so they could live. Both did what they were told to do and hoped.
One persons hopes were realised the others dreams were crushed.
Cancer is an awful illness, but the words and phrases used about it make it worse.