The broadcaster and author Danny Baker never bought into the idea that you battle cancer, “You are the battleground. You are the Normandy Beach. You are the Hastings in 1066. You don’t fight it. It’s nice if that helps you. You don’t battle it. You’re helpless. Science is fighting it”. Of course, it’s pretty easy to see where he’s coming from. Without the drugs and physicians the outlook would have been bleak indeed and there are plenty of cancer sufferers and cancer survivors who dislike the metaphor that treatment is a ‘battle’. What does that say about the thousands of people who don’t make it? Didn’t they fight hard enough?
But I don’t agree with Danny Baker and it’s not just because he has an unfortunate taste in football teams. His quote seems to suggest that the patient is entirely passive, that you lay there and let the doctors do their stuff. I think that’s unhelpful. A dialogue with your medical team is essential, it can make fundamental differences to the treatment you’re given and the way that it’s administered. You certainly shouldn’t feel ‘helpless’. However, I never entirely bought the pitched ‘battle’ idea either as it suggests a highly strung, taut, stressful approach to treatment, when it’s important to stay as relaxed and patient as possible. People who know me well will tell you that being ‘patient’ and ‘relaxed’ aren’t two of my strong points.
If there are pugilistic images I have kept playing in my mind over the years, in relation to chemo, they have been of Muhammad Ali’s fight with George Foreman – the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali famously soaked up 7 rounds of punishment before coming out swinging in the 8th to regain his heavyweight title. That’s how I feel about cancer. You don’t fight it, you outlast it, you let it blow itself out and come out swinging. It’s more siege than open warfare.
And yet, a day after receiving a really encouraging scan result, it was Churchill’s words after the defeat of Rommel in North Africa that sprung to mind, so maybe there are times when only a quotation borne out of a military victory will do:
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
After the multiple shocks of realising that I might be ill again, the blood test results, the scans, the diagnosis and the commencement of chemotherapy to hear that the cancer had reduced by 80 percent was the first good news in months and felt like the turning of the tide. I now have very little of the disease on board and, hopefully, the rest will be mopped up before the stem cell transplant. So with apologies to my own sense of logic and to Danny Baker, this was my El Alamein.