I'm a 52 year old husband and father. Another privileged white bloke, but one who realised just how blessed I am during aggressive cancer treatment in 2009 (that I later learnt nearly killed me). In June 2016 I had a second diagnosis and surgery to remove and replace part of my tongue.
We lost the whole of Tuesday. I woke on Wednesday in Marsden's ICU. Still high on whatever they had pumped into me!
Strangely, when he did tell me 'it's invasive cancer', I was surprised.
The mind is a bizarre thing. I had told people, people like Wendy in the office as I left for the appointment, that I was pretty sure it would be cancer. I'd said the same to Boo. The line I was peddling was that it didn't much matter because whatever it was, they were going to take it out anyway.
But clearly that was not what I really thought! Because I was surprised. To be clear, I wasn't angry or disbelieving, there was no denial or shock; no panic, in fact no sharp spike of emotion at all. It was more: 'Oh, ok! Let me readjust'. A bit like when you turn off a game that you're not that interested in when one team are winning 2-0 and you later hear that the other team won it or equalised in the dying moments. The analogy is a good one because - and this feels strange - although Cyrus was talking to me and about my tongue, it did almost feel like a game I wasn't that interested in.
What the ... is that about? How can you be told they've found invasive cancer in your tongue and not be that interested? The first part of the equation is simple: I've been told before and I think it may have lost some shock value. The second part is that I hadn't contemplated the consequences of the diagnosis. What it would mean. Over the next ten minutes or so that happened; a six or seven hour operation over three sites. Tongue, neck and wrist. A flap with its own blood supply replacing the diseased bit. Pretty major, but reassured to be told about it by someone for whom it was very normal.
Over those next few minutes the enormity of what we were embarking on started to sink in. Boo and I walked away in a bit of a daze, trying to take it all on board. It was raining, then it wasn't. And over the next few days, the next week, you keep coming back to the words; your tongue, 'cut out', 'in through the neck.' I have never had proper surgery before. The contemplation of it is the difficult part. Especially in your mouth, on your tongue. Actually my mouth, my tongue! It's so ..... personal. My tongue is part of my identity; I speak and connect to people with it. I'm aware of it all the time, at least I am now that Cyrus has taken a chunk out of it for the biopsy. Maybe it's the same with any part of you?
But certainly it's the operation rather than the cancer that is bothering me most. Is that because cancer doesn't scare you once you've had it? I'm reflecting on that question hard as I write it down. I certainly don't want to appear as if I'm dismissing or disrespecting it. I'm not. It's just that last time I had it I faced what it could do to me. I doubt you can get through serious cancer treatment without accepting that it could, that it possibly will kill you. I wrote last time about how I had accepted that, in fact how I had embraced it. At its simplest it became clear to me that there is only one thing that really matters, that has surrounded and nurtured me, that will be here after me and in some small part because of me. And cancer can't diminish love. It can't take away the love that I have given or felt. In fact, perhaps perversely, my previous experience was absolutely that cancer enhanced the love surrounding and nurturing me. People unexpectedly told me that they loved me. I felt the love and kindness of some remarkable people who I would not otherwise have met.
My conclusion was that if it took me (and I think it very nearly did) it didn't matter! I would have less time to be loved and to love. But love would endure. It would live on in other people around me. Seven damp English summers later, facing a new blight, that's exactly how I feel again. And obviously I've enjoyed those seven damp summers and the other assorted (typically damp though) seasons that have accompanied them. Of course, I've not enjoyed them as much as I should. That is becoming very clear to me now. Seven years ago I learnt that there was only one thing that mattered and resolved to treat every single day that followed as a blessing. Yet I have lived as a tetchy workaholic lives. I have been exercised by things that really don't matter. Because I'm normal?
Perhaps because I didn't take the lessons that cancer taught me first time seriously enough? This is the opportunity to do that. Last time I had a genuinely spiritual experience: I was treated to a view of the place where all the goodness in the world comes from. I knew I could go there but I chose not to. In fact I'm not sure it was my choice, I just didn't end up there! It was early on a Saturday morning, I had a huge temperature and no ability to fight infection. It was sunny. I had just pleaded with someone, somewhere for a cooling breeze and I felt something on my skin. And then there it was, in the distance and quite high up, an intensely bright place emanating goodness.
Without that experience, I don't think I'd be so sanguine now? But in my inimitable, glass half empty style I'm left asking 'why have I been so half-hearted in embracing that experience to date?' How much more could I have done? How transformational could my first cancer have been? I want to say 'I didn't know it was my first cancer did I?' But I'm feeling like that's the point. This second time you'd have to be a bit simple not to start the transformation?
An hour ago, sitting on a plane to New York for work between two men of my sort of age and demeanour (even if the one on the left had picked up a free copy of the Daily Mail) I wondered if I was the privileged one? It was a fleeting thought. But it has stuck. That's not exactly 'glass half empty' is it? Maybe this latest diagnosis is coming from the place where all good things come from. Maybe the world is shouting at me 'do something that really shows that you understand what matters!'