Early on, my friend Azariah asked me if I had a metaphor for the way I thought about cancer. Was it an adversary that I was battling against, or a companion that I would journey with for a while? It’s a good question and one that I’ve thought about a lot. When you’re facing something unknown, a metaphor can help you get your head round what’s happening and provides a way in to thinking about it. A metaphor is never perfect, but it can set your thoughts in the right direction and bring the unknown into reach.
There’s divided opinion about using the metaphor of fighting or battling with cancer. It seems to me that it is most often used by people who are looking on, to describe what they see their friends and family going through and used less by people who have cancer themselves. Poet Anthony Wilson has written eloquently about the ‘deficiencies of the battle metaphor to describe cancer’, and I have a lot of sympathy with what he writes. I have found it hard to get my head around the fact that this cancer isn’t something alien that has invaded my body, it is my own cells that have gone haywire, that are out of control. This tumour is a part of me, and while I haven’t got to the point of welcoming it and I am keen to get rid of it, I don’t want to plunge myself into civil war where I am raging against my own body. I’ve battled enough against a fierce inner critic for many years who has tried to wear me down with an internal monologue of all the ways in which I’m deficient; I think this is a season for being kind to myself. And I don’t currently feel like I am fighting for my life. This cancer is treatable, and although it feels more serious now that I know my liver is suffering, and I know there is always a possibility that I will look back on these words with regret, my attitude is that I have some unpleasant months to go through and then it will be over.
I think in some ways this cancer is more like a hostile lodger that you rented your spare room to, and you are now locked in a contract that you can’t end early. She arrived with good references and seemed nice when you first met her, but after a few pleasant months when you hardly noticed she was there, she has turned into the lodger from hell, disrupting your sleep with late night noise, being rude when friends come round, leaving washing up to fester in the kitchen and filling your home with tension and dread. Even when you don’t see much of her, her malevolent presence can’t be ignored and the process of getting rid of her just makes everything worse. How did you let someone so nasty into your home which should be a sanctuary and a place of safety? But although she may leave you without paying her rent, with a room that needs completely redecorating, and with a less naïve approach to sharing your space, she will be gone in the near future, and your home will be your own once more.
But perhaps unsurprisingly the metaphor that most resonates is that of training for an endurance event. I am nearly half way through my 18-week plan, and my surgery is booked for October with a period of recovery afterwards. My badly-functioning liver is like a sprained ankle that’s slowing my progress but doesn’t mean I’m out of the race yet. I’m ticking off the weeks one by one, enjoying some and enduring others. It’s a slow slog that’s hard, but one that’s falling into a recognisable pattern, and there is an end in sight.