I was running back from Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, on the other side of the Mersey from Liverpool when I passed a barbershop. I carried on running, even though I needed a haircut. Almost immediately, I passed another. I slowed, then stopped, deliberating whether to forgo my prior plan of running to the station, or whether to make the most of an opportunity for a trim, literally in front of me. Swiftly, the combination of convenience and prospect of relief from unruly hair won out.
Shortly after the female barber (it was speficially named a barbershop) started on my hair, a chap came in, who clearly knew my barber and they struck up a conversation. It turned to an acquaintance they both knew who also had a hair-cutting business. “She’s looking pretty well, you know, what with…” said the guy. “Yeah, I know, isn’t she?” said my barber. “Yeah, what with the big C-word” the guy responded. My brain cycled through several “C-words” before it dawned on me. “I thought it was a death sentence, but she’s still here”, he continued. My barber pursed her lips and remarked that treatment for “it” had improved over the last 50 years and that many people are living a lot longer.
This was a slightly surreal conversation to be in the centre of, in a couple of senses, though not part of. It was insightful, because it helped me understand – a little bit better – how many people view cancer as a death sentence: a barrier to living and a limitation to pursing enjoyable and meaningful activities – very much at odds with my own perspective, and experience. This makes me optimistic, that this expedition, with an amazing cast of CanLivers, can help shift those expectations.
Their surprise at their acquaintance’s longevity reminded me of a conversation I had not an hour before with Emma from the Teenage Cancer Trust at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre. We were discussing the discourse surrounding cancer – words such as “fight”, “battle”, “win” and “lose”. And – bluntly – how unhelpful they are. It had struck me as odd that these verbs are particularly reserved for cancer, creating an imaginary battleground of “winners”, “losers” and “survivors” – a direct judgement on each candidates strength and suitability. When you put it in the context of other illnesses you realise how ridiculous this is. No one says “he lost to a heart attack”, “she didn’t fight her diabetes hard enough”. To do so for cancer is misleading and unhelpful.
So I’ll return to the heart of the matter. We can do everything within our power to give ourselves a good shot at a long and healthful life – even me, with cancer. But that doesn’t give any guarantees, particularly with cancer, or other life-threatening conditions. And if we don’t live long even so, that’s kind of too bad. But what we can do is remember that today we can live a full, rich, meaningful day, and if we’re lucky we’ll be able to do that tomorrow, too. So rather than seeing any illness (or life itself!) as a death sentence, or a battle to be fought, let’s make the most of just today, whilst we can.
I’m off to try dodgeball this evening with an old friend, I expect I’ll be a bit sore later. Wish me luck!