Watching the C
I was asked to write something as a recent witness to the process of cancer and its effects, both with my close family and with a close friend. I have also compared this with my experience over my lifetime as a non-sufferer with other members of my family who were faced with the realities of cancer.
I grew up in a very much extended Irish Catholic family in the middle of Liverpool during the 1960s. Smoking was very much ‘de rigueur’ with the grownups, to the point where I had uncles who would compete as to how many cigarette coupons they could collect to get items from a gift catalogue. Then as members of my family, aunties and uncles reached their forties the funerals started and became regular to the point where I had funeral outfit, made up of my posh ‘Bri Nylon’ white shirt, triangular black bow tie made for me by my Mum’s friend (very much the fashion and sported by a young Tom Jones), all topped off with a belted black “Gaberdine” Mac. I had graduated from shorts to long trousers for such occasions although short trousers were still worn to school as holes in knees were preferred to holes in trousers during rough playtimes at school and we wore our scabs with pride.
The word “Cancer” was heard in whispers, in muted conversations my mother had when talking with others. The conversation would go quiet and used more gesture and sign than the spoken word. That as a young and curious boy would have me listening even more closely and of course would leave everything to my vivid imagination. Treatments and operations would be heard about in half tones, then how many weeks were left and then sitting in hospital corridors, then the day of the funeral discussed and the note to take to school to book the day off. I don't remember tears or crying, strangely as I write this now. The emotional side of all of this was hidden behind closed doors, a tolerated inevitability. Indeed, looking through the genealogy of my family I now understand their mindset as the previous generation of my family had endured the ravages of TB and to use the word “decimated” is too light in its strict definition to describe it. In the overcrowded conditions of Liverpool’s tenements TB or ‘Phthisis,’, as it was recorded on the death certificates, was more likely to get you before the smoking did. There seemed to be little time for grief for the rest of the family, just get over it and get back to work.
Funerals though were interesting, here the dark humour of the ‘Scouse’ culture would flow along with the drink at the compulsory wake after the ritual of the funeral mass and as the afternoon wore into the eventing the talk would drift onto the health conditions of various members of the family and the loose betting on who would be next on the list! Again, the conversation would dim into quiet tones and punctuated by the ‘it’ word as the progress of a further cancer was discussed.
So, this is how I grew up with cancer, as a non-sufferer, something which threaded through my life and would be something I would deal with too in my forties like my uncles. Something which saw me dabble with smoking too at university but thankfully stop once married and having my own family.
We seem to live in a different world now. Cancer has visited a close family member and a close friend, and they have taken the blow, rolled with the punches and have emerged, yes, battered, and quite literally bruised but their flags are flying. Indeed, they have used the experience as a pivot, a turning point of change in their life allowing them to achieve things that before they just dreamed of or talked about as a distant ambition. In my simple opinion this has been down to them being informed of the risks and how to reduce those risks. Of using that information be be aware of their own situation and to meet halfway the wealth of medical expertise and support available. To not be a victim of cancer in the shadows of the condition but to face “it” upfront, full beam illuminated and in technicolour! None of the whispered and gestured conversations of my childhood. I have learned so much from the experiences of these fantastic people that I have pivoted my life with theirs where I am meeting new challenges in my life.
As I approach 63, I am in training, I’m watching what I eat. I do physical exercise which challenges me even to the point of running and I dream of doing marathons again which I did in my thirties and forties. I do not do this to reach some ideal physical form, at my age that is long lost! No, I am in training for the inevitable, the thinning edge of the wedge where I will meet “it” in whatever form it takes, cancer or something else. I have learned from the survivors around me that it is important to be informed, prepared and watchful. Not a morbid obsession, but a view to reality with a touch of dark ‘Scouse’ humour my family would be proud of.