I don’t do ‘cancerversaries‘. I don’t remember them.
I don’t remember the date they diagnosed Hodgkins Lymphoma, although I can tell you it was the beginning of a week in February 1980, and I was still seventeen. I can remember practically every tiny detail of the day though.
I can remember getting in our neighbours car that morning as usual, with mum, to go to work, but the bizarre streaming tear ducts that had made it near impossible to get any makeup on continued to run uncontrolled rivers down my face; mum persuaded me back indoors and said she would call Jaillor (our family GP had changed his name to Lloyd-Parry years before, but when you’ve known someone as long as we’d known John Jaillor, he was kinda stuck with it; I just called him John) when she got to work. John had already called a few evenings ago, the same day I’d seen him because I thought there was a faint swelling in my neck. The same day he’d sent me straight for x-rays and I’d bumped into him running in to pick them up as I left the hospital. He’d said he wanted me to go to a hospital in London for more tests. Sometime soonish…
An ambulance arrived a few hours later, practically at the same time as my mum ran in breathless from the bus-stop. Bewildered – the wonky tear ducts were practically back to normal – I climbed in: two hours (three?) later the four of us – mum, me and two green-uniformed ambulance wonks – walked into a ward who’s name I forget and were greeted by a tiny little woman in pigtails and a white coat who was somewhat bemused I wasn’t on a stretcher, such was the urgency with which my GP had apparently yanked every possible string to get me into his old teaching hospital, St Bartholomews. This was Dr Rohatiner, years later I’d call her Ama and she’d still be wearing pigtails when she eventually retired.
I was despatched to the first bed on the right and told to get in (this seemed bonkers, it was the middle of the afternoon and I felt as right as rain!) while mother went to the far end of the ward with the little pigtail girl who showed her the masses in my chest on those x-rays from last week which the ambulance woman had miraculously produced from under her arm. Many tests and biopsies later, by Friday (Saturday?) the first chemo was in and I was home. Nine months later there would be more surgery and invasive tests the like of which don’t exist now because we have CT’s and MRIs and PETs, and I would spend the new year in another Barts ward on radiotherapy.
Writing this 39 years later it’s probably safe to say they cured the lymphoma, but no-one knew at the time that radiation at the levels they were still treating left a legacy of extraordinary risk of cancer in the breast tissue of young women. I was eighteen.
Three breast cancers – all triple negative (the most dangerous kind, although the tests for TNBC hadn’t been fully developed at the time of the first one), would follow over the next three plus decades, and the accumulated treatments would leave their own tableaux of late effects in their wake.
So I don’t remember dates. But I do remember many things.
For instance, I remember all the times I was ignored as everyone from consultants to students talked over me and about me.
And I remember the ones that talked to me, with me, including me in the discussion. I remember those that would swing by the ward one last time before heading home late in the evening, listening patiently to my questions and explaining details till I was sure I got it. That would share a joke in an examining room when it was obvious I’d been sunbathing topless on holiday. That introduced me using my first name to their new juniors or shadow students. That showed me test results and path reports, gave me copies, and went through them with me.
And you can bet I remember every rude, shitty, inept, pain-ridden attempt to cannulate or draw bloods.
But I remember even more those with patience, gentle hands, soft voices, and hot water bottles; the ones who could hear my heart beating and could make time slow down so that nothing mattered except me and that elusive, battered vein. The ones that got me through regimen after regimen without resorting to a port or line, against all the odds, because they allowed us both the space to breathe.
I remember everyone. I remember how they made me feel. I remember the ones who saw and heard ME, who treated me honestly and with kindness. They knew my name. I knew theirs. I loved them.
So you can keep your cancerversaries. If that’s what works for you, I high-five you my friend, but I have neither the space in my head nor room in my diary. I have another day of living to be celebrated, and I’ll just keep doing that until I’m not.