Terminate here: the culture of cancer

24th February 2011 By Mark Callaghan

On April 19th 2010, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour the size of a golf ball.  On May 10th, the medical equivalent of a Black & Decker power saw cut through my skull and the parasitic cluster was removed from the right frontal lobe.  On May 27th (you never forget the dates), I was informed that despite the apparent success of the operation my situation was considered terminal due to the remaining cancerous cells that would reform and then navigate to the centre of my brain.  I was told it would take a handful of years rather than months, but at 38, my countdown to extinction had begun.

Like you, I bought into the idea of living into my dotage.  Like you, I envisaged the pleasure of nostalgia; how the bookends of a long life would sandwich remarkable changes in a life transformed by people, places, and technology.  Like you, I looked forward to the obligatory mid-life crisis with the prospect of wearing pink shirts, holding my belly in, dying my hair, and bemoaning the current state of music (though to be fair, I already do some of this).  Yet, impossible though it still feels, I should have indulged in a mid-life crisis several years ago when I was unwittingly half-way through this one stab at existence.  But this is the thing with a terminal prognosis: contrary to the cliché, your life doesn’t flash before you, but your future certainly does.  It’s a future lost to life’s cutting room floor, like photographic negatives that will never be developed and realised in colour.  The bookends of this life, then, will stand much closer to each other than I could have hoped.

Apparently, in travel-related disasters, shock renders 12% of victims motionless.  To some extent I remain in this frozen state of disbelief, largely because I feel perfectly healthy now, as though what happened in 2010 was just a protracted and rather unpleasant dream.  But cancer makes you oscillate.  You feel a visceral punch of reality one moment, followed by an exhausted acceptance of your fate the next.  Yet, despite the misfortune of my position, it is important to spread the news of the present tense, or the ‘living in the now’, as the saying goes.  The “Terminate here” sign might be visible, but it does, believe it or not, bring its pleasures, and those pleasures can emanate from culture, the culture of cancer.

Cancer has not always been represented with due care though.  If cancer has a publicity agent it might be Darren Lamb, the overwhelmingly incompetent entertainment manager in Extras, who assigns his acts the most ludicrous of projects.  How else could you explain Snap’s 1992 hit single with its notorious line, “I’m as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer”?  Thankfully more esteemed cultural figures have saved cancer from exclusive association to such insensitive dross.  New College alumnus Dennis Potter, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, and former Balliol student Christopher Hitchens, who was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer last June, are more inspiring than any self-help book, more honest than some doctors, and certainly more enlightening and humorous than Turbo B’s pathetic rap.

In his final interview with Melvyn Bragg, playwright Dennis Potter spoke of celebrating the present tense, declaring that the ‘nowness of everything is quite wonderress’.  He famously spoke of appreciating the ‘whitest, frothiest, blossomist of blossom’ that had just appeared in his garden.  Potter, who died just three weeks later, did not seek pity but rather to open people’s minds to the glories of living in the now.  Cancer, then, despite its horrors, is paradoxical and can bring one to a state that may otherwise be unattainable.

Polemicist Christopher Hitchens deals with his demise in a remarkably frank and public way, highlighting the stockpile of cancer clichés and how the so-called ‘battle’ with the disease is a misleading term, as in reality, it battles you.  As Hitchens says, you never hear that someone died after a long battle with old age; it’s always cancer that is seen in this combative way.  Like me, Hitchens is an atheist, which brings specific complications when taking this existential fast lane on the road to oblivion.  As he points out though, being diagnosed with cancer is not the end of everything but rather the beginning of living beyond that cliché of taking each day as it comes. It’s an obscene finale, all right, but a magical and liberating one too.

Organic carrots, a daily glass of Bordeaux (they both contain cancer-fighting Flavanoids), and an unpronounceable chemotherapy drug, all keep my cancerous wolf from the door.   This means that in private I look like an alcoholic Bugs Bunny, chomping on raw carrots, swigging from a bottle of Claret, and always asking the Doc, “What’s up?”.  The spring is nearly here though and I look forward to seeing the whitest, frothiest, blossomist of blossom.  I suspect it will be like seeing it for the first and last time simultaneously.

“We’re the only beings, the only living things that know we’ll die, yet this doesn’t stop us from pretending we’ll live forever.”