Well I made it up a mountain. Not a physical one but a symbolic one. One represented by two great loves of my life – my homeland of New Zealand and fine wine.
Tonight, 9 June, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis from that day long ago in 2010. I remember the scene well, the moment well, the conveyor of the news (Gastroenterologist Dr Marcus Harbord, a lovely man) well. It was the Chelsea & Westminister Hospital on a beautiful late Spring day in London. “Unfortunately I can confirm you have stomach cancer.”
I’d suspected it, of course. Weeks of tests had pointed to precisely that verdict. I’d even seen the word ‘cancer’ on my medical papers after switching treatment from my local hospital in Ealing to the Chelsea & Westminister and reading the medics’ opinion (then unconfirmed) on the underground train en route to an earlier meeting with Dr Harbord. But suspecting and knowing are two different things and everyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer – or who has heard that a loved one has been diagnosed – will know the immediate sense of bewilderment that ensues.
I have written about that day on numerous occasions since. Memories of it spur me yet sometimes overwhelm me. I draw on them though when I am facing pressures, which quickly become inconsequential in comparison, and when I am counselling others who are going through a battle with this difficult foe. I remind those people that I am ‘still vertical’ a decade on and I know it helps.
I broke my news to readers 15 days after my diagnosis in June 2010. I preceded that blog with the lyrics of one of my favourite songs, written by a great American singer songwriter called Warren Zevon, who succumbed himself to this disease.
The moon has a face
And it smiles on the lake
And causes the ripples in time
I’m lucky to be here
With someone I like
Who maketh my spirit to shine
– Warren Zevon, ‘Don’t let us get sick’
In the intervening years I have been blessed to meet so many people who maketh my spirit to shine. One of them currently has a close (and young) friend of his daughter’s beginning her fight against the disease; another is a good journalist pal of mine, supremely fit of soul, mind and (previously body), yet singled out by this foul, undiscriminating disease. They’ll make it through though, I know. Cancer is a beast but it can be beaten. I’m proof of that and so are many others of an exclusive group that you don’t hear about but which quietly exists in this industry – the Travel Retail Survivors’ Club.
So to the mountain I mentioned. It is, of course, Mount Difficulty, the name of the wine from my homeland that I drank on 9 June 2010. Its provenance and its name seemed just right then as they seem just right today. Together they symbolised the challenge. “Mount Difficulty is there to be scaled,” I wrote a few months later in this Blog as I prepared for the seven-hour surgery that lay ahead to remove my stomach and rid me of the intrusive bully that had challenged my life.
I suppose the fact that this is now June 2020 means that I did scale that mountain. Others I know and care about are just at the foothills, a long and difficult ascent ahead. So, as I drink my latest bottle of Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir from the 2017 vintage, I raise a glass not just to survival but to my fellow climbers.