My neighbour stood six feet back from the doorstep to collect the heavy box that I had been babysitting since its delivery. His eyes were fixed on the headscarf I use to cover my baldness.
“We’ve heard you have cancer?”
“I can see you are on chemo,” he nods at the hairless head. “Will it help at all?”
“It might buy me some time…”
“Cool. Thanks for clearing that up. We’ve been watching you since the ambulance came a couple of months ago, but of course, we couldn’t just ask…”
That is how the conversation could have gone. Instead, all I got were thanks for minding the parcel and some curiously furtive looks, as if one of us should be ashamed of themselves for some reason, whether that would be him for what was going through his mind, or me for having cancer in the first place.
Not everyone who has cancer gets chemotherapy. Not every chemo drug makes you lose your hair. Some will look gaunt and grey throughout their illness, I’m looking hairless and rosy-cheeked. But either way, cancer seems to be one of those elephants in the room at which no-one wants to be seen to look.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame anyone for that… it is also one of those things where you never quite know what to do or say… and you pretty much feel that anything you do say is not enough. Or too intrusive, or too much. Or does not hit the right note…
It is the same wherever I go now… I cannot escape the label of cancer. The scarf-wrapped head and chipmunk cheeks are a dead giveaway. Anyone who knows me, from shop assistants to acquaintances, have questions in their eyes that they dare not ask. I am tempted to get a T-shirt printed… with ‘yes, I have cancer’ printed on it, although the way some people look at me, it might as well say, ‘leper, outcast, unclean…’
It is not necessarily any easier at this end of the conversation… or silence, especially when there is so much kindness, sympathy and empathy out there. I may have accepted the fact of a curtailed lifespan… may even be able to make jokes about it… but I know that there are people who care who still have to reach that acceptance. And not everyone is happy hearing me talk about the practicalities of funerals, methods of disposal or where to buy the cheapest coffin. Not everyone is ready to hear that ‘treatment’ is not synonymous with ‘cure’ and death is yet another elephant in the room.
So, bizarrely, is normality. It is almost as if, once it is known that you have cancer, you are supposed to give up the ghost fairly rapidly… or at least have the decency to be properly ill. To be carrying on as usual, being able to do many of the things you would normally do, just does not seem to compute. Neither does a ‘use by date’ on your life that can fall anywhere between ‘weeks’ and ‘years’, depending on whether those treatments that cannot cure, actually work to extend useful time.
As Mary Smith highlighted in her cancer diary this week, we are surrounded by uncertainties and unknowns. Across so much of your life, once the label of cancer has been duly applied, there are few definitive answers and far too many questions… and I for one would much rather know what is happening. Having said that, I would also much prefer people to voice their questions than to treat me as if I am yet another elephant in the room… even if, at present, I feel as if I look like one. *
*That extra weight? It’s the steroids. Honest.