Cancer 2 Being brave: the language of consolation

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Cancer 2 Being brave: the language of consolation

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Monday 10 May 2021
Tags: Cancer
In the early 1970s I watched the long BBC dramatisation of War and Peace (with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre). I remember looking at the battle scenes and wondering what it would be to have to face war in reality. At that point we were only 15 years from the end of National Service and it still seemed very possible as a young teenager that my generation would be conscripted into some conflict. I didn’t relish the prospect.

But how does anyone cope with that strong prospect of a violent painful death? I guess that’s a textbook definition of bravery, facing it and going ahead all the same.
Then again if you were in that position perhaps it wouldn’t feel that way. Perhaps you’d have filled your head with ideas of glory. Perhaps (and more interestingly) you’d just feel you had to get on with it. I can’t pretend to know how it would be, and I’m just glad I’ve been spared it.
Not a fight
None of which has much relevance to dealing with cancer, and that’s the point. So why is it that our dismal media cannot speak of someone who has cancer or who has died from it without using the words “battle”, and often “bravery”?

It is not a battle, and aggression is the least helpful way to think about something that’s gone wrong in your own body. It’s why it’s so depressing that even the cancer charities use these thoughtless metaphors. I appreciate that they might seem motivating in getting people to donate money, but potential donors are not the only ones reading those words.
I complained about this insensitivity in a blog seven years ago, and sadly the clichés have not gone away. Now I’m no longer having to think about this from an imagined viewpoint, and it seems even more important, but from this viewpoint the idea of bravery also wants more attention.
A changing picture
It’s not so long since the word cancer put dread in the hearts of all who heard it, and with reason. Most cancer treatments were limited, painful and often brought only a relatively short extension of your life. People faced with such treatment had to make a hard choice, balancing quality against likely length of life.

Sadly there are still some cancers that remain hard to treat, but for many, including all too common diseases like breast and bowel cancer new treatments in the last twenty years have transformed outcomes, sometimes even for quite late stage diagnoses.

As I wrote in the last blog I don’t yet know my prognosis. But many of the responses to my news have included encouraging stories of friends and relatives who have lived to a fulfilled old age after treatment, and so there are some good reasons for optimism.

It’s also true that the treatment may well be gruelling still. I’ve seen chemotherapy close up, while I also know that there are some variations on possible chemotherapy regimes and so I can’t be sure what to expect if that’s what I’m given. An operation is a more certain pain, and I certainly don’t relish the thought of a colostomy, if that should prove necessary.
These are rational fears, and of course they trouble me, but it’s nothing like going into battle. I can face them with something like equanimity, but I’m not sure it’s right to call that bravery. It’s something I’m going to have to go through in order to get to a better place, but would be easily worth it. It’s more like a summoned stoicism than bravery, because whatever path lies ahead it’s not as if I have a choice.

Not an event in life
Or it may be that my diagnosis is terminal. This seems less likely and if I’m honest with myself I don’t think I’m really giving the possibility any weight. Sometimes, thinking of the plans I had for the next couple of years the thought will flash through my mind that I might not be around, but these are only momentary flashes. I should know in a fortnight (my CT scans are due next week so things are moving quickly, for which I’m grateful, especially given the fact that until recently the health service was looking close to being overwhelmed by Covid).

But if the news in two weeks does turn out to be bad I hope I can accept it with dignity, and make the most of whatever I have left. Again I’m not sure it’s right to call that bravery. In his sonnet Plotted (from his late sequence The Dolphin), Robert Lowell wrote “Death’s not an event in life, it’s not lived through.” He was echoing Wittgenstein in the Tractatus: “Death’s not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”
Religious belief might see this differently and I want to come on to that in a future blog, but for me at least it’s about acceptance. I can understand that if you’ve been in pain the end might be welcome. I’ve seen in a few very old people too the feeling that they’ve lived long enough and with their friends and partners already dead there was not much point in carrying on. I hope if I ever got to that age I wouldn’t feel that way, that I could still take pleasure in the beauties of our world. In any case for me right now I have much to look forward to, my life having taken an emphatic turn for the better with my time split between the UK and a house in France (which I bought only last October), and the imminent prospect of a happy new marriage to Mary.
So I can’t pretend I’m ready to die quite yet, and I hope it’s not my prognosis. But if it is I will have no choice but to accept it.

There’s a sad, ironic moment towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, when Antony has just heard the news of Cleopatra’s (faked) suicide and is preparing for his own. With persisting vainglory Antony says to his friend and lieutenant Eros

Unarm Eros
For the long day’s task is done and we must sleep.

There’s a poignancy in that word “done”, marking the chasm between something being accomplished and something simply coming to an end (“done” as in “over”). Dealing with that chasm is something every man and woman must face, sooner or later. It would be frustrating for me to have to deal with it now, but there’s little value in being angry about it. The prematurely dying Dylan Thomas was wrong about this with his “rage rage against the dying of the light” (and Keats in To Autumn, facing death at 25, was by far the wiser and more humane).

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