On this day one year ago, I lost my dear mother to cancer. It has been the toughest as well as the most conscious year in my life. Conscious, because as Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose,” and having lost the most important person in my life, those lines resonate with me. Tough because even in moments of joy, the pain is always present like a bone stuck permanently in your throat.
There are words that once barely formed a part of my vocabulary which now cause a pang every time I think of them. Oncology. Histology. Cytology. Adenocarcinoma. Resections. Bilirubin. Tumour markers. Metastasis. Dysplasia. Palliative care.
While I miss the me who was illiterate in cancer language, now that I speak it proficiently I want to remember my mother by sharing insights that I came to obtain.
For there is no denying that humanity urgently needs a way of coping with cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, 1 in 2 of us will have cancer in our lives.
Yet the discussion about cancer is framed the wrong way. The common approach is to discuss cancer as though it were an evil spirit, something that we can battle, provoke and cleanse off. The spells with which we imagine we will scare the evil demon include such things as pink ribbons and no make-up selfies.
Or, we discuss cancer as something that we can easily control by eating copious amounts of turmeric, moringa or whatever the latest miracle food may be.
These types of discourses are superstitious and dangerous.
Firstly, they ignore the fact that there is not only one type of cancer. Pancreatic- and prostate cancer, to give two examples, are entirely different diseases. Even pancreatic cancer consists of four different diseases.
Secondly, these attitudes imply that we can control our fates. That if only we live the “right” way, we can live forever. But while a toxic lifestyle can lead to cancer, most cancers have no clear causes. I don’t know why the general public is made to feel such pressure and guilt about cancer when cancer is a disease that affects people rather randomly.
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that we should not live healthily. A healthy body stands a far better chance to fight off illnesses than an unhealthy one. Heavy drinking, smoking, eating a lot of red meat and processed foods weaken and damage the body. There are clear benefits to eating healthy and exercising. Not least that being healthy makes life more enjoyable. Enjoying life, in return, is probably a good way to beat illness.
Nor am I proposing that all the efforts people put into “saying no to cancer” are wrong. These are well-intentioned acts that rightly express our frustration with the incredible amount of lives lost to cancer and which raise funds for important research.
But here’s the thing. Most of the efforts aim toward finding a cure for advanced cancer. While the best – in many cases, the only – “cure” for cancer is to detect it early. It’s no secret early diagnosis is the surest way to beat cancer.
It therefore boggles the mind, why so much more money is invested in an evermore elusive cure instead of early detection. Cancer could be drastically reduced if the collective consciousness shifted from superstition and fear-mongering to routine tests and early symptoms checking. In fact, the UK government’s first ever campaign to focus on symptoms awareness was such a success that it has been rolled out nationally.
Now please do not worry that your simple cough may be cancer, I am talking about symptoms such as jaundice, unexplained weight loss, blood in urine. Also please, please, please remember that no matter what stage of cancer a person may have, people are not prognoses. People are like flowers, sometimes blooming in the most arid conditions. Moreover, doctors accurate diagnostic average is only 80 – 90 per cent.
What I am advocating is simply for a compassionate but sensible approach to cancer, one in which we are well informed but still hopeful. Because when dealing with grave illness, there is no medicine like hope.
Lastly, I would like to share some useful links.
Key signs and symptoms of cancer – A fantastic but simple resource. Please read and share it with your loved ones where suitable.
A Season From Hell by Marilyn French – As a carer of a cancer patient this book gave me so much hope. Its frank and candid style is perhaps not for everyone, but that’s precisely what makes it trustworthy. Plus we know from the beginning that she survives.
The Gift by Hafiz – Poetry in general is a balm for patients and carers, but this book is a real gem of a reminder of the joys in life.
Microculus – I’ve already linked to Jorge Soto’s TED talk in this blogpost but it’s worth its own link. Microculus is a functional device which promises to easily and affordably check for multiple diseases, including cancer, with just 1 ml of blood.