Coming Out About Cancer

I was invited to Bowel Cancer UK’s 25th Anniversary reception at No 10 yesterday. I went with my wife, Stella and my eldest nephew, Eyal. I went because my sister, Eyal’s mother, died of bowel cancer on February 3, 2011 age 53. One friend’s father died of this only a couple of weeks ago, another friend’s father has just been diagnosed. I went because I want to support this charity and make people more aware of bowel cancer, actually, of cancer in general, because, let’s face it, cancer is cancer, it ends up causing the same end result in those who are unlucky to have it, and whether we pretty it up in pink (there is nothing pretty about cancer) or have problems dealing with the less ‘appealing’ cancers such as bowel cancer, or don’t even think of the ones that rarely get a mention – my cousin is currently 9 years into Fallopian tube cancer, and on the twelfth or thirteenth different course of chemotherapy – it’s not going away. My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago, and each day she is here is a miracle. Then there are all the friends who have been and are sick, and those who are no longer here.

A few things happened yesterday at the anniversary reception. I hadn’t given the event much thought, other than what to wear, booking a cab, asking the rain Gods to hold off so our suede shoes wouldn’t be ruined (and the Gods listened). Architect, Lord Foster spoke wonderfully well, I thanked Charlene White for her moving speech at the BC UK Spring Walk last year, and had a moment with Julia Bradbury outside the men’s loos – which I almost went in to by mistake – they have tinted glass in their loos, she said. I won’t ask why, I said. I looked at some gorgeous paintings, a Lowry, some Olympic art, a Henry Moore sculpture which I was told I could touch, so I did. Actually, I stroked it, it was that beautiful. What I hadn’t counted on was being brought to tears by my sister’s oncologist – it hadn’t occurred to me that he would be there. Whenever my sister and I went to see him, we wondered what colour bow tie he would be wearing. On the days he was more casually dressed, open neck shirt, no tie, he seemed like a different person. Just as Lord Foster started to speak, I saw the man with the bow tie and tapped him on the back. He turned round, looked at me, I flashed my name tag towards him, he paused, and I said, Shelley, Leah Israel’s sister. He stepped back and took a deep breath. I’ve never seen my sister’s oncologist without my sister. Ouch.

And of course my sister’s oncologist knew my wife’s oncologist, because cancer is cancer. Yes, it acts differently in everyone, and there are so many different treatments, and every day a new trial is underway and some breakthrough drug is available, and it works for some people some of the time and for a few people it works really, really well. Six months after my sister died, the treatment she had been seeking for several months on the NHS (which she eventually did have and partly self-funded), and which was denied by her PCT because it had not been approved in this country by NICE, (although was available elsewhere in the world), was approved by NICE.

I met some lovely people last night, caring people, who donate and do what they can for a charity that is relatively small compared to its higher profile cousins. I say cousins because they are all related, all the cancers, and treatments and drugs that cross over the cancers. Yes, there were some famous people there, apart from Lord Foster (I wouldn’t have known it was him if he hadn’t spoken) and Julia Bradbury (see above), I actually wasn’t looking to see who was there, because the famous, the people off the telly, are people, they do what the rest of us do, they suffer from the same illnesses and eat and go to the loo, they get angry and tired and frustrated, except, the one thing those people off the telly do, which the rest of us can’t, is make a difference to how the public perceive just about everything. They matter because we listen to them. I know there are many well known people who talk about their cancers publicly, but if more famous people with some of the less ‘fashionable’ cancers came forward, imagine the difference it would make. Some people moan about breast cancer having such a high-profile, but that’s because of the celebrities who come out about cancer. When I was growing up, cancer was never discussed, people used to say the C word, as if it was a secret code. Some people still say the C word. We all know what it means.

I had a great conversation with a trustee, and the CE of Bowel Cancer UK and various other committed people. I decided that the culture in the UK, particularly when it comes to the middle classes, is to not say anything about anything and hope it will go away – particularly in relation to health. The trustee told me that generally, in Scandinavian countries, their cancer survival rates are higher NOT because their medical care is better, but because they are diagnosed sooner. They are more at ease with their bodies and bodily functions, and they have no qualms about all the things most of us over here find too embarrassing to talk about, so while they do talk about it and do something sooner, generally, we wait. We wait and wait, and often it is too late. I’m not for one moment saying early detection guarantees that you’ll live to a grand old age, but it will give you more of a chance. But how do you change a culture?

I also discussed the government and their issues around charitable donations, and how children’s charities and animal charities do really well, but anything to do with the elderly or the less appealing charities/cancers receives much less funding. I’d always put a child ahead of me, always, but an animal, I’m not so sure. Sorry animal charities, I love my cat, she brings me enormous pleasure, but she is a cat.

After wine and canapes, a quick look out of the window to Horse Guards Parade, and a partial view of the gardens at No 10 (I was pleasantly surprised to see a small, raised vegetable patch,) I went to say goodbye to my sister’s oncologist. He does have a name, but to me, he will always be my sister’s oncologist. I told him how Leah and I used to take bets on what colour bow tie he would be wearing, and when he wasn’t, well, we weren’t very happy about it. And my sister’s oncologist told us a story last night, about when he was twenty-five his father was found dead, and left him a considerable selection of bow ties, no money and three pieces of advice. I’m sure he wont mind me sharing those with you. 1. Never play cards for money on a train with a complete stranger (because my sister’s oncologist’s father and his father’s brother, saved up to send their other brother to Canada, and he played cards with his fare money on a train with a stranger, and lost the lot). 2. Never book a restaurant for three. They always give you a table for two and squeeze in a third chair. Always book for four. 3. Never go for lunch at 1. Either 12.30 or 1.30 as the world and his mother go for lunch at 1.

My sister’s oncologist seemed more human to me yesterday, sharing personal information, telling us how privileged he feels to be doing the job he does. He said people come to him and give him specific times of their lives, bits of their lives and he feels fortunate. He said he really liked my sister, she did very well, given how sick she was, and I said I wish she had been here to know the genesis of his bow ties.

I left No 10 feeling sad and hopeful, but very aware that all cancers matter, that none is better to have or more appealing or favourable. There is nothing favourable about cancer.

4 thoughts on “Coming Out About Cancer

  1. All I can say is, this moved me to tears….
    Cancer in my surroundings is still very much in the closet, and mostly referred to as ‘THAT’ illness…. It is so devastating, when ‘it’ gets hold of someone and if no cure works, that person just slips away like quicksand… I hope it’s some consolidation for you and Eyal, that you have each other to hold on to the memories of your sister….
    Thanks for sharing this….

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