As a follow-up to my post about writing or not writing about illness and death, I wanted to put down a few thoughts about living with cancer, or, more precisely, about living with someone who is living with early-stage prostate cancer. Of course, cancer is different for each person and this post is only my personal experience and not an authoritative account of what cancer is like. Your experience is likely different (and this isn’t my first or only experience of being close to cancer, as I’ve mentioned before.)
Please note that I don’t say I’m living with someone who’s “fighting” or “doing battle” with cancer. As Anthony Wilson has written on his truly excellent blog, the language of battle and fighting is still commonly used across the media when reporting incidences of cancer and that’s problematic, as Anthony comments:
The notion of a ‘battle’ places the responsibility of getting better upon the patient. This opens up the possibility that it is the ‘strong’ or ‘deserving’ patients who survive having cancer, and that those who die from it are somehow lacking in moral fibre.
Embedded in the notion of people with cancer as soldiers, doing battle, is the idea that they must stay positive in order to be strong and fit for combat. Not only that, but the people around them must also be ‘positive’. ‘Positivity’ is suggested as, if not an actual solution or cure, then something essential that will cause harm if it is not always present. That’s a huge pressure to place on people who are already experiencing a multitude of emotions, including worry, anxiety, sadness and anger. To insist on “staying positive” is to ask people to shut down other emotions, rather than giving them the opportunity to actually talk about how they’re feeling. Even eternal optimists feel worried, sometimes.
It’s natural, though, to ask someone who’s expressing anxiety to “try to be positive” or to “try not to worry.” What else is there to offer? It would hardly help to say “Yes, you’re right to be worried, it will probably all end terribly.” Perhaps, sometimes, it’s helpful not to say anything at all but to simply be available to listen. Sometimes, just being present, and silent, is enough. Or you might say something like “I’m sorry you’re feeling like this,” or “I can see how that must be worrying for you.”
One thing I’ve become more aware of, since Andrew was diagnosed, is how many people’s lives are affected by cancer. If it’s not someone’s close relation or friend, it’s someone they know well or someone they used to know. And, as we all know, there are many stories in the media of people who’ve died (“lost their battle”) from cancer.
Andrew and me are holding on to the thought that not everyone who’s diagnosed with cancer dies from it. We’re used to seeing images of people looking noticeably thinner and frailer, and of those who’ve lost their hair following cancer treatment. I haven’t noticed that many pictures of people who look reasonably well, which is likely if the cancer is in the early stages, as Andrew’s currently is. Andrew has said to me that he feels rather guilty for not looking more ill. He’s noticed people avoiding his eyes but examining his hairline as they’ve been talking to him. His situation is that he’s going to get worse in order to get better. That is, he may well look a bit ill when he’s undergone a radical prostatectomy, as he will do soon. We’re hoping that this will remove the cancer from his body.
I was grateful to a social media friend, Tracey Upchurch, for sharing this image on Twitter:
— Cornwall’s Pirate FM (@piratefm) February 2, 2016
It shows Kurt Jewson, a 44 year old man from Helston, in Cornwall, days after his prostatectomy operation. Generously, Kurt Jewson has decided to show people this image as a means of raising awareness about some of the possible symptoms of prostate cancer (which were dismissed in his case because of his young age – in spite of reports that prostate cancer is being diagnosed more frequently in younger men). The symptoms might include
- A need to urinate frequently, especially at night
- Difficulty starting urination or holding back urine
- Weak or interrupted flow of urine
- Painful or burning urination
- Difficulty in having an erection
- Painful ejaculation
- Blood in urine or semen
- Frequent pain or stiffness in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs
More information at Prostate Cancer UK.
Kurt says “Feel free to share, if you want. It’s too important for me to be vain about.” I’m really grateful for Kurt for doing this, not least because he is the first person with prostate cancer we’ve come across who’s younger than Andrew. (Andrew is 46). It’s helped Andrew feel a little less alone with the cancer. Sending all good thoughts to Kurt.
Well, that’s my news for the week. We hope to have a date for the prostatectomy within a month. Meanwhile, Andrew’s carrying on with his job, our kids are carrying on with their studying, Saturday jobs, and teenage life, I’m carrying on with poems. As always, thanks for reading my blog. Thanks for listening.