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[Picture: Vanity Fair]
‘Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of “life” when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach… Sorry, but you did ask … It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.’ – Christopher Hitchens (above), writing in Vanity Fair
Reading has become one of my prime supports during my confrontation with cancer. Not just good novels (courtesy of my DFS reading buddy Sharon Weiner I’m now on Cormac McCarthy’s searing ‘No Country for Old Men’, whose title seems kind of apt for this aging Editor stuck in a frozen England…) but also great journalism.
The latter doesn’t come much better than columnist Christopher Hitchens who has been writing brilliantly over recent months about his own ‘battle’ (a word he likes to confront) with cancer of the oesophagus.
He talks of an imaginary zone called ‘Tumortown’ that he is forced to inhabit and writes with sometimes excruciating honesty about the reactions to his plight.
Here’s an excerpt:
I was waiting to sign copies at an event in Manhattan a few weeks ago. Picture, if you will, me sitting at my table, approached by a motherly-looking woman (a key constituent of my demographic):
She: I was so sorry to hear you had been ill.
Me: Thank you for saying so.
She: A cousin of mine had cancer.
Me: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
She: [As the line of customers lengthens behind her.] Yes, in his liver.
Me: That’s never good.
She: But it went away, after the doctors had told him it was incurable.
Me: Well, that’s what we all want to hear.
She: [With those farther back in line now showing signs of impatience.] Yes. But then it came back, much worse than before.
Me: Oh, how dreadful.
She: And then he died. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Seemed to take him forever.
Me: [Beginning to search for words.] …
She: Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual.
Me: [Not quite finding the words, and not wishing to sound stupid by echoing “of course.”] …
She: And his whole immediate family disowned him. He died virtually alone.
Me: Well, I hardly know what to …
She: Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I understand exactly what you are going through.
Brilliant. The encounter prompted Hitchens to ask “if perhaps there was room for a short handbook of cancer etiquette. This would apply to sufferers as well as to sympathizers”.
Fortunately I don’t have to sign books. And, equally, travel retail seems to be full of people who are sensitive, selective and sympathetic in equal measure rather than crass, cringing and condescending.
Cancer is a fact of life and it’s best, I have found, to be selectively candid about it, giving an honest picture without inflicting the grimmer details on understandably reluctant listeners. After all, it is a difficult disease with difficult treatments.
As I enter my final 32 days of chemotherapy, I find myself wishing for a magic pill that would simply allow me to doze off like Rumpelstiltskin for a month and then wake up refreshed and raring to go in a brave new world.
Alas, dozing off is the most difficult task of all at the moment. Insomnia rages like a werewolf in the night; nausea is my constant companion; and my powers of concentration now make sending the simplest e-mail or writing a Blog such as this a major exercise in logistics.
And yet… and yet. 32 days and counting. One more month, including surely the most disorientating Christmas I will ever have spent. Yet I have an uncanny conviction that this one month will prove definitive in terms of what cancer will bequeath me. Somehow I need to relish the moment, not simply endure it. A different time is coming. And it’s so close I can almost touch it.