How the English deal with the embarrassment of Cancer

Being a “little bit under the weather” highlights the very essence of being English. Our national character trait is to be self-depreciating and crazily understated.  We would rather chew off our own tongue than be accused of the heinous crime of boasting. Luckily we disguise any whiff of a boast under the cover of “one downmanship” which we show off when discussing anything remotely serious. But… it is still not enough to shrug off our predicament in a dismissive manner; it must also be done in a witty or amusing way. 

How fortuitous for the English then to posses all the perfect characteristics to tackle the jaw dropping embarrassment of having cancer, or worse still talking to someone who has!

It is absolutely forbidden for example to answer the polite enquiry” how are you?” with a “not very well, I have cancer”.  This will be met with nervous coughs and raised eyebrows.  You will have to be English to appreciate how utterly discomforting those coughs can be.  So a better answer perhaps would be “oh, not too bad, had a bit of the bowel and liver out and my body looks like it has been stitched together by the local reception class, but mustn’t grumble, had a few days off work!”.

Humour is our favourite coping mechanism and it strikes me we are at our best when we are laughing right in the face of adversity. So give me a dollop of irony, humour, mockery or gentle teasing any day of the week please.

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Now, I need to put you straight on something

I have been complimented for the way I am dealing with this bit of cancer problem.  Some of you have even worried that I might be hiding what I am really feeling and not doing my fair bit of mourning or raging.

I recognise this as the “there but for the grace of God” syndrome.  I had it myself when colleagues or relatives got ill.  You can’t imagine how you would deal with it, and assume the ‘victim’ has courage beyond your wildest dreams or nightmares.

So here’s the good news should you ever have any bad news, it’s not true!  You would almost certainly cope the same as me. I have had the honour of meeting some inspirational women going through similar treatments as well as those in remission and without exception they are getting on with it and living without the heavy burden of ‘why me’ dragging them down. Mary, Liz, Marion, Kathy, Mindy and Jackie, you have made it easy for me to follow you and I am enormously grateful for you giving me a crash induction course into the cancer club when I became a recent recruit.

The body and brain is designed to cope better with reality, than “whatifery”.  So living and curing yourself becomes a full time occupation and leaves very little space for your brain to indulge in fantasies.

For example, there is absolutely no point in pretending you have the intellectual wordsmithery of Stephen Fry and then getting upset when you can’t finish the Sun crossword!  Or that you are as fit as a butcher’s dog and start whimpering when you can’t lift your back legs off the floor. The sooner you come to accept reality and get on with noticing the kindness and warmth that surrounds you like a protective shield, and spot the amusement that can be found in unexpected quarters, the better for you and everyone. 

I have never been one for taking things too seriously and I find that cancer only exacerbates that character trait in me.  I am not saying everyone will deal with it in the same way, but the more people who realise the harder journey by far is for those watching, caring and worrying for you,  the better.

I have known people who positively thrive on being unhappy, enjoy a good argument and wallow in their own misfortunes.  But my approach is the complete opposite.    The way I see it, there can be few things more unpleasant than living with a grumpy old goat with a life threatening illness, so quite seriously I need to have a good old laugh to make things a little easier around here for all of us. So please feel free to take the micky and point out when I am being a bore or having a sense of humour crisis as it makes me feel more normal and I like that.

Taken at the Churchill Hospital last week!