The Cancer Warriors

This was posted on Facebook on February 4th 2016:

It’s a bit ironic for me that World Cancer Day 2016 is today, on the three-year anniversary of my own initial cancer diagnosis. February 4th 2013 is a day I remember with extreme clarity: it was a Monday and in the space of that one day I had an appointment with the GP, visited Bournemouth Hospital for a blood test, received a call to come immediately into Poole Hospital’s paediatric ward where we spent hours subsequently waiting until a doctor came to tell me the unfortunate news that I had leukaemia. Something that I feel should be mentioned here is that you don’t suddenly change upon finding out you have cancer. There is nothing inherently better about someone who has cancer, nothing that makes you a great person overnight – we are normal people with a disease and that disease does not define us.

I have often heard the use of battle rhetoric applied to people with cancer. “They fought so bravely” or “their battle with cancer”. To be honest, even though I can understand why it helps some, that sort of language makes me feel uncomfortable. At fifteen years of age and again at seventeen, cancer came a-calling and I didn’t pull on my armour, get out my gun and prepare to wage war against my own body. That’s not how it works. Cancer is what occurs when your cells mutate, cancer is your body not functioning the way it should. Here is what you do: you acknowledge that you are a ticking time bomb and you carry on. After all, how can you fight against your own body, the very thing that both keeps you alive and kills you at the same time? I am not a fighter. If anything, my treatment has been a lesson in passivity – tamely accepting cytotoxic drugs and painful, sometimes disfiguring procedures to prevent my body from self-destruction. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are my fighters, killing off my cells with the hope that the bad ones will also die; I do nothing in this. I am just the battleground. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and nothing you can do will influence it either way.

The truth is that there is nothing romantic or glamorous about dying from cancer. Cancer is an illness that will rob you blind before it steals your life. It is not ‘losing a battle’ because everyone is a loser when it comes to cancer, survive or not. People who die from cancer do not die because they did not ‘fight’ hard enough ; people who die from cancer die because their cancer is stronger than the tools we have to eradicate it. I have seen people die of cancer and let me tell you, if it was any sort of fight or battle, it was an ambush where balloons were being used to fight AK-47s. They knew they were going to lose but the road behind them disappeared into a gaping chasm and it didn’t matter whether they stepped forward, cancer had a clear shot anyway.

Cancer Research UK’s adverts tell us that ‘cancer is happening now’. Research into finding better treatments for over two hundred different types of cancer is happening right now. Without cancer research, I would be dead right now and so would many other people. But people are still dying from cancer. There is still so much more work to do to find cures for all the different types of cancer – having a rare type of cancer does not make it any easier to die – and World Cancer Day is an initiative to help do that. Why wouldn’t you want to help? Cancer is a disease that touches all of us and it is almost inevitable that everyone knows someone affected by cancer. In fact, everyone born in the UK after 1960 has a 50% chance of being diagnosed with some form of cancer in his or her lifetime so, thinking about it, you’re really helping yourself tomorrow by giving today.

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