It used to be – before all this happened – that I felt a vague unease at terminology used by people with cancer. Cancer sufferer, cancer survivor, it all sounded a bit coy and queasy-making. Until it happened to me, and I discovered it’s not as straightforward as you’d think. Because despite cancer having majorly dominated my life for the past year and more, I can’t actually say it’s because I have cancer. I have ME, yes, I have arthritis, yes, but I don’t “have” cancer: as soon as they find you have it, they whip it out. So there were only six weeks in this whole process, between diagnosis and surgery, that I could actually say I “had” cancer.
It comes up more often than you’d think, the need to explain your health state, neutrally and succinctly, in passing conversations. Are you planning a holiday this year? Why do you need me to lift this down for you? I haven’t seen you around for ages. How’s work going? I started by saying I was recovering from abdominal surgery for a tumour, which worked well. Then I moved on to I’m on chemo. (Which is amazing, it’s like the best get out of jail free card ever. I’m having chemo exempts you from any possible expectations anyone could imagine.)
But now things have progressed past that. My life is still massively affected by it all, physically and mentally. I’m still under threat of it returning, and consequent ongoing investigations for the next five years. Sometimes I need to explain why I’m like this right now, but there just aren’t good words. I’ve had cancer really doesn’t convey it: I’ve had pleurisy too, but that was 40 years ago and has absolutely no relevance to life today. I’m recovering from cancer sounds self-important. The best I can find is, I’ve been dealing with cancer. If someone says this to you and it sounds coy or avoidant, try to think of a better way to say it.