1. Understanding Cancer

Can you say the word cancer just like any other? Yes there’s a stigma attached to it because for so many decades it has been a killer that the medical profession have not made much progress with, in terms of curing it. But it’s just a noun, the word ‘cancer’ describes a dis-ease of the body. Becoming knowledgeable about your condition means you can better deal with it and being able to call it for what it is, is the place to start. You should be able to say “I have cancer” without whispering and others should be able to ask you about ‘cancer’ without wincing.

Start the healing process by becoming informed

Getting informed is what you are doing now, reading about cancer is the best way to start understanding it. Whenever you meet someone that has gone through this ordeal don’t be afraid to ask them what it was like for them. Generally people that have had cancer soon become aware that it is a touchy subject for others to discuss with you. After you have come to terms with your diagnosis the next step is being able to discuss it with others and to put at ease the people around you that would feel awkward, interfering, nosy or rude talking about cancer with you.

When the fear of cancer is  is staved by knowledge and understanding, then the brain can think rationally and what was once a fear will manifest into something else, like determination. Sometimes people call cancer‘ – ‘the big C so from a word it turns into a mini-phrase. Even saying ‘the big C’ is easier for people to say than the word itself. Because I have had cancer, I can quite freely talk with another person that has it with no qualms at all. We talk freely because we have shared the experience. But those that have not sill always feel uncomfortable unless you assure them that the word ‘cancer’ doesn’t upset or offend you. Take the fear and its power out of the word.

Sometimes we refer to person as being ‘bald’ or ‘fat’ or ‘small’. If you are bald, fat or a small person you may feel hurt or offended if it’s being directed at you. But with cancer that doesn’t work. New cancer patients have become members of a unique club, and are not ashamed to say they have cancer because it’s not the same as leprosy was once or AIDS in the 1980s, there is no stigma with it because it affects so many people in the world.

When you have cancer all the problems in the world fade away. Your thinking is that you could very well be dead soon, if your treatment doesn’t work then you likely will be, so what do the problems in the world matter to you. It’s particularly difficult when you have young children because no matter how strong the relationship as they get older their memories become foggier and you fear they may even forget you after a time.

Whether you live or die you don’t seem to have a choice in it – what will be will be. But you can influence it with knowledge, diet and exercise. You are in a battle for your life against an invader in your body. Well that’s not entirely true. Cancer is not always an invasive thing like receiving a high dose of radiation. Sometimes it can be a virus like Epstein-Barr which does invade but there are multiple ways the cells themselves mal-function, the body does break sometimes.

There was a time when doctors would say that the causes of cancer are not understood. Nowadays there are many things we do know about that causes, smoking cigarettes for instance. Although some cancers remain un-treatable, many others have a very high cure rate.

Take Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, up to the 1950s if you contracted it you would die from it. Today the survival rate for all patients diagnosed with it is about 92 percent. The five-year survival rate is about 86 percent and for those with stage 4 the survival rate is lower but can still be successfully treated sometimes.

The recent coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated when the world comes together to make a vaccine for a deadly disease it can do wonders. Then you ask why has cancer taken so long to do the same. Granted that cancer is much more complex and that a cancer vaccine is almost upon us, but considering the decades of research and the money thrown at it you might think so many people globally would not be dying from it – But then again millions of people die of hunger every year.

You will cry, don’t kid yourself. If not in front of your family you’ll do it privately, its the most natural thing. Then there’ll be self-pity and ‘why me?’ There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a part of the process in dealing with cancer that you have to feel that shitty. But the sooner you leave that behind and grape the rope of hope the better. Hope is about believing you do have a chance at defeating the disease no matter how improbably it may seem now.

By way of a comparison, let’s take the placebo; something prescribed for the psychological benefit to the patient rather than for any physiological effect. Placebos prove that empowering the mind actually works. The mind and the body are two of natures most wondrous creations.

A placebo works because the belief of something in the mind triggers something in the body, for example chemicals are produced that otherwise would not have been, to fight a disease or whatever. In the same way hope will keep your brain believing that you can beat this disease. In itself a cancer placebo may not actually heal cancer where chemotherapy cannot, but it means that at every turn, even when you sleep, your subconscious will be fighting your corner.

What is a ‘dis-ease’

Think of the time before your diagnosis, when you could take your health for granted – sort of. Your body was functioning normally and it was at peace, at ease. The body has a defence mechanism for dealing with biological intruders like bacteria and viruses; the immune system. When a foreign microbiological body is successful in penetrating the body’s defences, the body becomes out of sync, it is ‘dis-eased’.

If we look at diseases in human history we know of leprosy, a slow-developing bacterial disease that causes sores and deformities, it was a killer. Then the black death responsible for the death of one-third of the world population. Then smallpox, Cholera, Measles, Russian Flu, Spanish Flu, Asian Flu, AIDS, SARS. All these diseases put the body out of sync.

Once they were better understood the number of deaths declined. Diseases in growing communal areas such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery which thrive in squalid conditions, were prevalent in medieval to Victorian times. But the key has been in understanding how a disease spreads. Cancer is slightly different in that it has no doubt been occurring for the longest time.

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.) Cells divide in an uncontrolled quantity and this has to have been going on since forever. When humans were hunter gatherers they collected more disease, when agriculture came along even more diseases, and after that when cities and civilisations grew the communal diseases came.

Disease probably infected those with already weakened immune systems, those that had cancers and they spread it from person to person. This is another trait with diseases, whether they jump across organic life forms such as between human, animal and plant. Smallpox was a horrific disease that concentrated on moving between humans and it couldn’t jump. This is why it was so easily eradicated by chocking it area by area. When diseases jump they are much deadlier to us.

People want to know what caused their cancer, how they got it. I’m aware of the origin of my cancer but those that are not just ask themselves ‘why me’? It’s easier to accept if you were a smoker but without any idea of what you ‘did wrong’ it can be depressing. You cannot blame yourself if you don’t know, because diseases are invisible killers, you can’t see where the virus is lurking. And how can you possibly attribute yourself any blame if there is a history of cancer in your family, when your genes are programmed to affect your condition.

The oncologist does examine your family history and lifestyle and it could offer insights. You would think that over the generations, a history of disease would evolve a stronger immune system to certain diseases but instead it seems to program genes to behave as weakly as their ancestors.

Our ancestors may not have smoked twenty cigarettes a day but most certainly sun exposure would have caused cancer many times over with some being more prone than others due to their genetic make up. You may never know how your cancer came about so don’t let it worry you too much and concentrate all your energy into a recovery plan. If you usually buy bread at 6.30am then continue to do that so your body learns that it can still do the things you need to do.

In Summary

Cancer is not a dirty word, it’s a noun. It’s a generic term to describe the occurrence of uncontrolled cell division. It’s been happening since early creation, it’s something that happens to the body and not necessarily your fault and half the world population get it. There are over 250 types of known cancer conditions, none of which are 100% curable.

It’s fine to talk about cancer to others and you have the onus is on you to put others at ease that it is okay to discuss it like any other topic. In fact it’s when people treat you differently or pity you that is the problem. Remember that others don’t know what to say around you. You can ask “what type of cancer do you have,” and likewise you can reply, “I have colon cancer.”

Try not to be withdrawn or secretive with family. Those closest are the ones who may be more on egg shells around you. These are the ones you care most about so let them in. Accept that it is your responsibility, not theirs, to put in the extra mile to make them feel at ease around you and discuss your condition. Do you really want to sit in a room where everyone is ignoring the white elephant.

It may well be hard to feel good about anything from the dark place you find yourself in at present, but it will be over one day and you’ll be back to taking your health for granted, except this time round, with your second chance at life, you’ll love the smell of flowers, and happily choose a tuna salad for lunch over a burger and chips.

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