I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy again. In personal terms, this can mean only one thing. Five years after I was first diagnosed with cancer – four of them healthy – the sneaky little fucker came back. Want to hear all about it? Great.
This illness got me into blogging in the first place – a fruitful hobby as it turned out, evolving into the copywriting work that has sustained me since prancing about on stage became a(n even) less practical source of income. I had just settled back into freelancing after moving to Sheffield last year, when I had a call. Routine blood tests (thanks, The NHS) showed a raised level of CEA, the handy protein that can indicate an intruder in the body. It was nothing to panic about, but they’d test again in a couple of months to see if it kept rising.
It kept rising. But in my now-trademark mode of denial I was sure that it would turn out to be nothing serious. Raised CEA can indicate a number of other things including irritable bowel – and having undergone cancer, radiation and surgeries followed by an eventual, enthusiastic return to beer, my bowel had every good reason to be irritable. I had a CT, a PET scan, and an MRI, and I went to Planet Zogg on my 35th birthday and got good and smashed just in case.
Cancer can be a scary word, but it’s an umbrella for so many hugely different conditions and experiences that it’s not worth getting worked up about until you have a clearer idea of what it’s going to mean for you. I’ve always found it helpful to remember that many conditions out there can be a hell of a lot worse for your quality of life (as pointed out also by George Monbiot in his current article about having cancer, which I feel to be an outrageous stealing of my thunder.) First time round I was treated with radiation, minimal chemo and surgery, which was judged to be a complete success. I was reassured that it had been caught ‘in time’ and throughout the whole process I didn’t spend much time worrying about dying.
This policy hit a bump several months later when an ashen-faced consultant called me in to inform me that contrary to their hopes, a follow-up CT showed that my abdomen was in fact now hosting some sort of cancer festival, headlined by multiple liver metastases that were likely inoperable. My least favourite take-home word from that meeting was ‘palliative.’
I spent a fortnight getting used to the idea of a dramatically shortened life-expectancy (during which we planned a shotgun wedding, because what the hell) before good news began arriving in stages. That sinister blob in the pelvis was actually an ovary, unmoored from its new home in my ribcage where they had hitched it to avoid radiation. That bit was some scarring, and that over there was contrast dye filtering through a kidney. There was a surgeon at St. Mary’s who said he’d take on the liver mets. (That’s where we were by our wedding day, which made for a significantly cheerier affair than anticipated.) Then the doctor who biopsied my liver took one look at the Toblerone shapes on the ultrasound and said ‘I don’t think that’s cancer.’ He was right – the biopsy came back clear and the lesions turned out to be a temporary side-effect of treatment. I was completely bloody fine.
… Kind of. I was four years’ worth of fine. Hiding out in that hot mess was a polite little speck of actual cancer, which woke up last year and started quietly regrowing in my pelvic wall.
They can’t irradiate you twice and I had all of it last time, so I started chemo just before Christmas. Like the disease, the treatment varies massively from person to person, but I have found it to be pretty much as advertised. It’s basically the max amount of (magical) poison they can put in you without killing the important bits, and it’s pretty gross. My guts turn to rubber and the world is repellent for one week in two, taking on a sickly smell I can only describe as stale fabric and carrots. Carrots from hell. I become terrified of encountering my own farts. I also become an idiot – chemo brain is totally a thing – stuttering to a blank in the middle of sentences, forgetting to let the cat in and losing important items in a search radius of 1 metre.
My hair’s dropping out but I haven’t gone bald, which assists me in convincing myself that I am fine – though I was kind of looking forward to the dramatic head-shave and I’m just a little sad that I won’t get that souvenir image of me and J together looking like the last eggs in the box. (I could shave my head just for kicks, but having grown out a pixie cut once, I don’t think I can go through the horror of the Terry Wogan phase again.) The promised acne never really got itself going, probably owing to the insanely dry skin that spared me the same fate in my teens. Instead I have developed a bizarre rhinoceros hide, which falls off in what seems like its entirety once a fortnight. My response to unfiltered daylight is now that of Peter from What We Do In The Shadows and my #1 hobby is staring at the inside of my eyelids in complete silence. #2 is watching Grey’s Anatomy.
I gave up Grey’s Anatomy after I got better the last time because it is such an appalling time-hoover. I like it when I am poorly however, for exactly this reason, and because it requires minimal brain intervention and the people are so shiny. I like being annoyed that they never tie their hair up, and wondering how long it’s going to be before they have a plane crash in to the hospital to frame their increasingly preposterous season finales. I like that everyone has managed to become a genius without developing any rationality whatsoever and is always crying and yelling deeply unreasonable things at their colleagues – all of whom they have slept with and who face an implausible death (and possible resurrection) at an unknown time in the future. But I think mainly I like the casual way it deals with mortality, flinging it around like it’s no big deal. And maybe just a little bit, I’m reassured by surgeons constantly bursting into rooms and going “I’ll cut it out! What is it? I don’t care! Hand me that icecream scoop.”
Thus (but with less sex and crying, I hope) a real-life genius plans to wield their scoop at whatever’s left in my pelvis after chemo, hopefully leaving me cancer free for good – or for a long while at least. Five years in and at a sobering stage IV, I’m extremely lucky that that’s even possible. I’m also lucky to live in a country where lifesaving care is available to me in the town where I live, that I have a condition that appears to respond to treatment, and that I didn’t have to bankrupt my family or fight an insurance company to fund it. In fact I’ve found in the last 5 years that there’s nothing quite like illness for making you acutely aware of how privileged you are – and that this knowledge will transform life if you let it. In fact it has to. Despite being soundly beaten to it by George Monbiot, I’m hoping to unpick this in future blogs, but I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks for reading. Death to carrots.