Living in Cancerland

Cancer is no joke. But staying cheerful helps

Ileana von Hirsch

I have for the past three and a half years, been “living with cancer”. It is incurable, but quite treatable. If all goes well, my oncologist and team can keep me going for a satisfactory number of years.

Life in Cancerland is like a Harry Potter book; you live in a parallel magic world, whilst still living an ordinary Muggle life. The extra dimension is membership of a club that brings access to all sorts of people, science, new interests, privileges, benefits and opportunities (not least authorship: I wrote a book called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemotherapy). Smaller but also precious benefits include wheelchairs and minders in airports, seats on trains, permission to cancel any plans or commitments, and carte blanche to cut to the chase (time is precious). “Do you get a disability card for parking?” asked someone once when I was giving a little talk. “No,” I said, “but you could try sticking your Macmillan Cancer Emergency Toilet Card under the windscreen wiper.”

Perhaps the most significant benefit is the discovery of my own power to ensure my psychic well-being, so that I live in an idiot’s bubble of happiness and positivity. 

Reality can be moulded. So I do. The most valuable lesson that I have learned is controlling my narrative—I call it “narrato-therapy”. Faced with “cancer counselling”, I head off the well-meaning but unanswerable questions on the lines of “And how do you feel about having cancer, do you feel overwhelmed, alone, scared of dying?” with an enthusiastic account of the transformative power of storytelling. This usually ends with me giving counselling to the counsellor, and then I tell them to buy a copy of my book, so everyone is happy.

A friend, Sara, was diagnosed around the same time as me, but with a fatal cancer. Up to the week she died I used to send her over pages as I wrote them; they made her laugh out loud and helped her through the night. The habit of looking for things to laugh at every day has stayed with me, and the writing down of them is a constant source of joy. My oncologist says laughter is a huge boost to survival rates. If he can get someone to laugh at the first appointment, he feels that things will all go well.

I used to think of my father as the leaping chamois in the old Babycham television commercials. I remember the drink unfondly, a mock champagne made from pears. But in the advert, a grey and dull scene was brought to technicolour life as a cartoon baby chamois bounded joyously across the screen, leaving a wake of rainbow colours, sparkles and bubbles. That was the effect my father had on the world. I remember once, long after his death, re-visiting an alpine village  just over the border from Switzerland into Italy, that we used to visit with him as children. At the time, it had seemed the apogee of glamour, fun, excitement and beauty. We used to smuggle miniature bottles of Goldwasser and Kirsch back into Switzerland in our ski-glove fingers—we didn’t understand the concept of duty-free back then.

‘I have always thought that it was not only totally uncontroversial, but also blindingly obvious, that the right to end one’s life when one wants to is surely the most fundamental of all rights’

I went there on my own after his death, and the place was an absolute dump. I am not saying that Cancerland is a dump, but stories, and the storytelling urge, transforms it. Cue rainbows, sparkles and bubbles whenever you want.

The prime example of controlling one’s narrative is to plan the exit strategy: the most important of all human rights. I have always thought that it was not only totally uncontroversial, but also blindingly obvious, that the right to end one’s life when one wants to, is surely the most fundamental of all rights, if rights do indeed exist. One didn’t ask to be born, and if it all goes pear-shaped, one ought to be able to say “I’m outta here”.

A friend complains that her daughters spend their whole time arguing about who was getting what, while she would point out to no effect at all that she was still alive and not about to die as far as she knew. My problem is the opposite. I am trying to arrange everything for after I am gone, and my family all stick their fingers in their ears and go
“Lalalalala” and “You are going to live another 30 years” which I clearly am not. “No” I feel like saying, “Will someone please now help me Google exit strategies?” Paying loads of money to the Swiss to end one’s life in Switzerland, expensively and hygienically, strikes me as unacceptable on so many levels—aesthetic, financial, logistical; so I tried to find where the long and noble tradition of choosing one’s exit started.

I was a little surprised to find practically no references anywhere. Starting with Ancient Greece, any acts of suicide seem to have been imposed on citizens by their society. Socrates only volunteered to end his life under pressure, and in fact, Greeks are a vigorous and life-loving race with a spectacularly low suicide rate. A young and earnest 19th-century anthropologist, visiting the Cyclades in search of ancient customs, went to the island of Sifnos where the inhabitants were extraordinarily long-lived. “How do you deal with the problem of over-population?” he asked curiously. “Oh,” came the cheerful response, “It is less of a problem now, but in the old days we just used to push the old people off a cliff.” So no voluntary exit strategies there either.

Roman vein-openings in bathtubs and harakiri are also not exits chosen freely at a moment that suits the person but follow a time-frame imposed by someone else. My last resort was the apparently traditional Japanese practice of elderly people going up a mountain to die when they feel that they have become a burden on society and have “a low quality of life”, as my oncologist would call it,  rather than be a burden on their society. Again, on closer inspection, this turns out to be ubasuteyama—something that they are required to do, often protesting vigorously, rather than an exit at a moment of their choice.

I discussed this with an older cousin of mine (aged 65) and suggested that, given the state of the planet, 70 would be a good time to retire. She had recently become a grandmother so pleaded for another five years to see more of her grandchildren, who are, it has to be said, particularly sweet.

So perhaps it is not blindingly obvious, and I am missing something.

In the meantime, though, I am stockpiling Zopiclone with long expiry dates.

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