“My name is Peter and I have cancer.” Even now I can look at that sentence and not believe it. Nine and a half weeks ago I had not heard of sarcoma, beyond Karposi’s eponymous, let alone malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH for short — or Mother From Hell for the more technically minded). Now, however, I have a surgical scar that should guarantee me a swim-on part in the next remake of ‘Jaws’ and am about to commence radiotherapy. Chemotherapy I leave on the shelf until later. Nine and a half weeks can be a long time in a man’s life — not to mention a fairly modest film.
For months I had had a hard lump under my right armpit and a slight ache which made sleeping awkward. Nothing more. I rationalised it as a Repetitive Strain Injury from over-use of the computer and assumed it would pass. As, however, it showed no inclination to fade or diminish I finally took myself and my lump to my General Practitioner in May. He gave it the once over and said I had a lipoma — a lump of fat.
If that had been the correct diagnosis I would not now be writing this story.
My next appointment was with a surgeon for removal of the lipoma. He was pretty sure that something more was going on. I forget exactly but his words were something like “Don’t reckon that’s a lipoma… looks like a malignant tumour to me. Would you like to get up off the floor now or later?” At this point I had one of two choices — entrust my life to the National Health Service or thank the Almighty that I had taken out private medical insurance. If I tell you that the one would have offered me an initial MRI scan two days before the other had not only done MRI, CT scan and biopsy but had me booked in for surgery — you can guess which one I chose.
I always assumed that there would be some defining moment when the diagnosis would be certain: one minute I would be non-diagnosed the next I would be given my fate. It was not like that. As each consultation occurred, each test was done and each report was made, cancer just came nearer and nearer. Lipoma — tumour — sarcoma: one word gradually replacing the previous as I moved ever closer to becoming a ‘cancer patient’. That elision from well to sick was not easy and yet somehow neither surprising nor scary. I said at the beginning that I had not thought much of my lump. Looking back on it I think that a part of me knew more than it was letting on: in the New Year I had started working-out, eating better food, cutting down on wine and cigars. (This was not me acting out the Kevin Spacey role in ‘American Beauty’! Despite the obvious similarities in our lives I had not even then seen the film and no my wife is nothing like Annette Bening!) I reckon a subliminal/spiritual (call it what you will) side of me was saying ‘Hey — watch out there’s something coming. Best get ready.’ So when this something did come I was not completely caught off-guard. That doesn’t mean I’m not scared, it does mean that I am a bit more prepared.
The night I did receive a final diagnosis of MFH I was in a monastery. No co-incidence this, I needed to be somewhere where the power of prayer would robe me with hope. (This may sound far-fetched but as I used to live there myself I know how good these men-in-black are at their job!) I spent the night awake trying on this new ‘me’. The hardest part was the thought of not necessarily being around for my daughter who is nine. I am no believer in the metaphor of ‘fighting’ cancer — it’s just not a game that cancer plays, it has its own rules — but I do have a goal of being alive for her at least until she reaches adulthood. I may not be and it may not be cancer that takes me. (Only death and taxation are certainties in this life — my favourite cartoon shows the Grim Reaper standing in the lobby of a big, ritzy firm and the receptionist saying “I’m sorry Sir but the Chief Executive is not available right now — would you like to make an appointment?”)
I have changed since sarcoma became a personal part of my life: I am at last convinced of the usefulness of the Internet — I have learnt more than I ever thought I might want to about cancer and what my options are, I am less rattled by daily trials, I no longer say “Ah well… maybe tomorrow” and I don’t bother so much about not having an adequate pension scheme! Above all I have met some wonderful people… some of them I had known for years without realising how wonderful they were. Some are new…many from the Net. I am also being very un-English and talking a lot about my situation: I can toss such words as ‘adjuvant’ and ‘metastases’ into any conversation and I could bore for my country on the whole subject of cancer!
For old hands, for long term survivors, this must seem rather small beer: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” they say. I know, and I know too that I have a long and rather rocky road to travel. I am hoping to be nothing more than fed up with the impending six weeks of daily radiotherapy and I am dreading the thought of metastatic spread. Let it not be my brain O Lord! I have been told that there is a 30% to 40% chance of a spread to my lungs within the next two years. The catch of course is that it either has or it has not already spread there and is just waiting to kick into action. That does make one look down at one’s chest in a new light. That, as Dr Johnson once said, concentrates the mind.
August the 4th 2000