Alive with cancer – why more of us are

However uniquely awful it is to be told you have cancer, the experience is one that many millions of us will have to go through.

The latest research shows that in the UK alone, some 50 per cent of the population alive in 2025 will get the disease. Count in their friends and relatives, and that means everybody is going to be touched by cancer, either directly or indirectly.

This is on the face of it very bad news: the incidence of this horrible disease is going up, for all sorts of reasons, and literally everybody will be affected as a result.

My mother remembers hearing her own mother and grandmother whispering in the back of a taxi in Manchester. That was the 1950s and they’d just visited a friend in hospital. My Mum, a child at the time, worked out that the friend had cancer. The word was unmentionable, a sure precursor of death, and sure enough the friend soon died.

The stigma remains, but the good news is that the diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Over recent decades, there have been gigantic advances in the science of cancer. This means that of the 250 or so discretely identifiable cancers, an increasingly large number are either curable, or capable of being treated and kept at bay.

Some still carry a very poor prognosis. Others, such as leukaemia and the lymphomas that affect the blood and bone marrow, were once just as bad. Just remember the 1970 tear-jerker Love Story when the heroine died tragically early from one of these diseases. If she’d been diagnosed in the last decade or so, she’d most probably be alive and well to this day, and the film would have a lot less tragic ending.

A dramatically better prognosis

Breast cancer also has a dramatically better prognosis: when my mother overheard that conversation, nine out of ten women with that diagnosis would have died as a result. Now, eight out of ten will survive.

So, although more people will get cancer, more of them will survive, for longer. This means that more people are going to be alive with cancer, either because they have to put up with a slow-burn disease like mine – I’ve had it for many years at the time of writing and it hasn’t killed me yet – or they have a friend or a loved one who is caught out.

My experience is benign by comparison with those found to have solid tumours in their breast or prostate gland or any number of other all too intimate places, the initial indignity of diagnosis will be followed by the scalpel of surgery. Then follows radiation and or chemotherapy. Even if you survive all that, there are often life-changing side effects, from impotence to infertility.

I have soldiered on for years, doing a job, paying the bills, trying to be a good husband and father.

This is another aspect of living with cancer: the impact on relationships with people around you. You hope your doctor will save your life, but your family is your life. The shock of the diagnosis is likely to be as great for your partner, parents, children or siblings, as it is for you.

Your loved ones may not have the diseased cells in their bodies, but they will suffer in their hearts and minds.

The pressure on others can be intense

In my family, there was a range of reactions, from fear to tenderness and concern. That my marriage collapsed six or seven years into the disease is probably not a coincidence. The pressure on others can be intense.

As for friends: the cancer experience really sorts the wheat from the chaff. Some supposed bosom pals ran for the hills, never to be heard from since; other more or less strangers prayed for me in the local church. Some treated the disease as if it were an airborne infection, and stayed well clear; others showed rare compassion and consideration.

I carried on at work throughout most of my illness. It is completely rational to worry about what colleagues and bosses might think, and about how and what to tell them. I chose to tell my bosses the whole story, and met with great understanding and sympathy: known as tough and uncompromising business people, they could not have been kinder. (Until I got better and they started behaving like their usual selves!)

I never tried to hide the diagnosis from other colleagues, but didn’t make a song and dance about it either: for me, carrying on as normally as possible in the office was and is an important way of coping. I have never wanted to be a victim and taking the tube to work the morning after chemotherapy was not heroic, but a way of proving to myself that cancer was not going to overwhelm my life.

Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

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