Saturday, 9 April 2011

Roll up, roll up, all aboard for Cancerland...

The last fortnight has been a busy one. In between looking after baby A and catching up on some much-needed sleep, I've been spending a lot of time in Cancerland. Just exactly where is Cancerland you might ask ? To an alien from outer space, it might even sound like an appealing destination. Although they should not confuse it with Wonderland, where Alice had a lot of fun and which sounds like an altogether more pleasurable place to be. Cancerland is not just the hospital where you have your scans, nor is it the unit where you receive your treatment. Cancerland is the parallel universe that exists alongside your normal life. Sure, the docs and the nurses and the needles and the tests are all part of the virtual 'holiday' that you take when you're at the hospital but Cancerland is also a state of mind.

See, when you're there, it seems as if no-one cares about your lack of hair, or discoloured nails or browless face. You can relax and reveal all your current imperfections to the staff and other patients, convinced that they've probably seen it all, if not worse, so many times before. But more significantly, you can let your guard down for a while. You can talk freely about your diagnosis, without worrying about the possible reactions from your audience.

But when you're not in Cancerland, you often find yourself making a big effort to look and sound as 'normal' as possible. But sometimes you get caught in-between the two worlds.

Take today. London was sunny (a rare occurence for us northern hemisphere Brits) so the world and his wife (including me) were out in abundance. All made a beeline for the first available patch of grass they could find.

I headed for our local park playground to meet my boyfriend and baby A there. I bumped into a mum - someone I had met in my pre-diagnosis life while on maternity leave. Someone who reminded me of the innocent conversations we'd had about weaning and wet wipes before I made the journey to Cancerland once again. I was wearing my headwrap, but as I've noted before, I'm lucky to live in a multi-cultural area where turbans and headwraps are as common place as fringes and bobs. Nothing suspicious maybe (given my ethnicity) about me also wearing one. But it was the eyes that gave me away. I went over to say hello and and before I could ask how her baby was, I started to cry. Not emotionally-fuelled tears, but those of a chemical persuasion. The docetaxel that I had just finished taking was still giving me watery eyes. She naturally asked me what was wrong. I stuttered that I had an allergy and quickly tried to wipe the tears away. But they stubbornly wouldn't stop. I briefly considered telling her the truth, but how do you casually mention that you've just finished chemotherapy for breast cancer without potentially scaring another woman who, like you, has recently had a baby ? The tears kept coming and I smiled and laughed through them. I went to wipe them again but realised that my nails, with their cracked, yellowy and purplish hues looked so unsightly that they wouldn't have looked out of place in a horror movie.

So I let the tears run down my face. She scanned my face again. Maybe this time she also noted the lack of eyebrows, and the dark shadows under my eyes. Perhaps she looked again at the edges of my headwrap and saw hair follicles where there should have been hair. She suddenly started to look really concerned. 'Are you alright ?' she asked me. Her look made me feel scrutinised. 'I'm fine,' I volunteered again, this time a little less convincingly. 'It's just an allergy'

On my way to the hospital for an ultrasound scan, I thought again about that meeting. If I'd just had a stroke or a heart attack or any other major illness, would I still have taken such big steps to conceal it from an acquaintance ? Why is it that the chasm between the real world and cancerland seems so wide ? If at some point in their lives, one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer, why is it still such a taboo subject ?


  1. Wonderful post. I had the opposite condition during my treatment. I called it "breast cancer touretts". As soon as I saw someone, or someone said hello... I was compelled to tell them that I had breast cancer and then I'd burst into tears. The world between cancerland and the "real" world... is one of shadows and mysteries. I don't think you ever actually leave though, you just learn to navigate better.

  2. Thanks Nicole,
    'Breast Cancer tourettes' is a great way to describe it ! lol
    I would have loved to have been as strong as you when I first diagnosed but was so in shock myself that I thought everyone would run a mile once I told them (and a few did but more about that later...). Now I'm much more upfront about my illness and feel that if they have a problem with it, well - it's their problem, not mine. But it's taken a while to get to this point. It's really interesting to hear how other women cope with talking about the big 'C'. Thanks for your comments. Cxx