1. Understanding Cancer

Let’s repeat that word ‘cancer‘ until we can accept that it’s just another word like any other that describes something solid, a condition, state or action. In this case it’s a noun, the word ‘cancer’ describes a dis-ease. Let’s now look at that condition in more detail because being informed about something means you can better deal with it.

Start the healing process by becoming informed

Okay, enough doom and gloom. Let’s look at what we’ve just said in the intro above and break it down. This is the first step in the process to heal the body. Remember what we just said about being informed, it will take care of a lot of the fear. When the fear of our predicament is staved by facts and information then the brain can think rationally and what was once fear will manifest into something else, like determination.

I’ve highlighted some key words in orange because we will talk about what these words mean. The word ‘cancer‘ is sometimes shortened to ‘the big C‘ and is just a word as we have discussed so far. Those not affected by cancer tread carefully around the word. It’s like if they say it they feel it may cause offence, like they have just uttered a word more repugnant than a rude expletive and this word when spoken even in a soft tone or whispered becomes a cause for shame and embarrassment. But it’s just a word – cancer.

People feel this way because they are not informed about the dis-ease. So here is the first lesson in taking control, it is not their responsibility to become informed about it and tip-toe around you, but it falls on you to lighten their burden and assure them that you are neither hurt nor offended by the word ‘cancer’, it simply is the word that describes the dis-ease that you have, it is what it is.

“I have cancer.” 

Sometimes we call bald people ‘bald’, sometimes we call little people ‘small’. You only accept this if you are bald or little. When you have cancer you become a member of that club, albeit more reluctantly than the man that has gone bald. Don’t be ashamed to say you have cancer, it’s not the same as leprosy in days gone by or having AIDS in the 1980s. There is less stigma simply because it affects so many people across the world.

When you are affected by cancer the word no longer frightens you.  The fact that you will die unless you overcome this dis-ease just becomes part of who you are because there’s no other way out. You are fighting an invader in your body. You’ll traverse many emotional stages so don’t try and kid yourself, there will be crying involved, and self-pity and a little depression thrown in for good measure. BUT… either you want to get through it or you have given up the will to live.

One of the major hurdles is climbing that sheer rock-face of the task ahead. You say it repeatedly over and over; “I’m going to beat this,” but as you learn more and the days move on and you start to appreciate just how much stuff you don’t understand it can become overwhelming. It becomes harder to bear when you reach a point when you know as much as the doctors about your condition.

It goes without saying that if the rug has been pulled from beneath you and you have been told that there is nothing that can be done to treat your condition then the reality of that finality is devastating and palliative care becomes the focus; but until it is certain that your end is nearing then there is always hope, and the odds of survival these days are good and continuing to get better. We have passed the half way mark where more people are surviving cancer than dying from it.


What is a ‘dis-ease’

Think of the time before your diagnosis, when you could take your health for granted – sort of; and your body was functioning quite normal, relatively speaking –  it was at ease. The body has many defense mechanisms for keeping microbiological attacks at bay such as from bacteria and viruses. When a foreign microbiological body is successful in penetrating the body’s defences, the body becomes out of synch, it is at a ‘dis-ease‘.

If we look at diseases in human history of an epidemic nature, we note that first leprosy was the killer then the plague came and then later the flu. Millions of people contracted these attacking bodies and their bodies were irreversably put out of synch terminally. After these life taking conditions were understood better, deaths declined, but in came communal conditions such as typhoid, cholera and disentery which thrived in the squalid conditions of the time.

All of these conditions were bacterial in nature but cancers can be either bacterial or viral. For example lymphomas can be caused by the Epstein-Barr virus which also causes mononucleosis (abnormalities in the blood such as glandular fever.) No doubt cancer has been taking lives for centuries because it is a very simple condition; cells divide in an uncontrolled state, and this must have been true in ancient times as well. 

The cause of some cancers can be directly attributed to things like smoking but for most cancers you cannot trace an obvious cause and it will remain a mystery how the condition was contracted. It’s something that rubs against some people that just want to know what caused their life-threatening predicament. You can only blame yourself if the cancer was self inflicted, such as with smoking. Otherwise to determine the possible cause it’s a case of looking back through your life. If you have swathed on a Spanish beach every holiday for 40 years and you now have skin cancer then voila! If a smoker and you have throat cancer then ditto. If nothing is apparent it could be down to heredity in your genes, has cancer affected your family for generations?

A doctor will look at your lifestyle and history and may offer probabilities on likely causes. You may have no clue then there are those that believe they know exactly what caused their cancer. Whatever the cause, it’s the same result: cells in your body have been damaged resulting in uncontrollable cell divisions which in turn form tumours.

Our ancient ancestors may not have smoked 20 Dunhill a day but most certainly sun exposure or even stress resulted in terminal cancers. The body is under attack all the time and generally it maintains you well, but even an olympic athlete given a teaspoon of ebola virus would succumb to it. No one is invincible. You may never know how you came about cancer and neither will the doctors.

What matters most is the stage of the cancer because all cancers are in essence the same, in respect to uncontrolled cell divisions, and the approach to treatment is pretty standard, albeit due to the complicated nature of the body, depending on which part has been affected, determines a very specific treatment for each stage. However, nothing is set in stone so if a treatment is not working, such as chemotherapy then a complimentary or alternative treatment can be tried such as radiotherapy. 

Not all cancer types can be fixed, it depends as we said, a lot on the stage. Caught early and there is a better chance than treatment towards the later stages when it may be too late to come back from.

To Summarise

Cancer is not a dirty word, it’s a noun that refers to the condition you have. It doesn’t describe it entirely, but it’s just a generic term that encompasses all the types of that condition. If you have colon cancer it’s fine to talk to everyone about your cancer, but if you’re asked what type you have, or where it is present, then you say “I have colon cancer.”

When talking to others that have had cancer themselves you will find no barriers. However remember that those that have not been afflicted will be uneasy about discussing cancer related stuff, so do go out of your way to put them at ease. If you were recovering from a heart operation people would not think twice about asking you how the heart operation went, so do let people know that it’s okay to enquire how your cancer treatment is going.

Try not to be secretive about things. When we talk about those affected with cancer it’s not just the afflicted but the parents, siblings and close friends. Sometimes the person with the dis-ease is less affected by it than those around them. Always remember that these close people do care about you, even though it may be very hard to appreciate it from the dark place you find yourself at, but try you must because you have it within you to keep them worried or put them at ease. Tell them how you are genuinely feeling – some days will be better than others, but they will appreciate the effort you are making despite your predicament. The best thing you can do for loved ones is to keep them informed, as they may be afraid to ask.

In the next module we will look more in depth at what cancer is.

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