Monday, 5 October 2015

135. Hurray! Breast Cancer Will Improve Your Life!!

You've got breast cancer? Worry not.

Congratulations, in fact. Because here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to Transform Your Life.

Take our word for it. You go through cancer and you emerge on the other side a Better Person, or at the very least a person with a Better Life.

Healthier - because of that diet you've discovered, full of liquidised greens and purples and browns, which you will stick with forever. You now feel so lovely and fit! And you are thin at last!

More loved - what with all these people who've fallen over themselves to help and support you and tell you how precious you are. (In the spirit of Queen Victoria who survived several assassination attempts and observed, "It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.")

More worthwhile - because now you no longer fritter your life away watching cats on Facebook. No sir! You have started support groups and raised bucket loads of money for good causes. Not a day of your life is wasted anymore.

With less baggage - because cancer has focused the mind so within months of diagnosis, you ditched your husband. And your job. Oh, and you've started a university degree. You see, cancer has also made you:

More fulfilled.

Plus, you've learned how you can Help Your Children Through Difficult Times. You've started sewing Cancer Owls! Spread the word!

This is the kind of thing you read in magazines.

In this particular case, the October issue of a woman's magazine. It doesn't matter which one. I'm only blogging about this now that the issue of WomMag is safely off the supermarket shelves, so there is no risk of you rushing off to buy a copy. (Fortunately, none of my friends and acquaintances seem to have read it, as nobody commented "I saw you in Wommag," whilst loads of people told me "I read your letter in the Guardianlast year.)

A Wommag journalist interviewed me alongside seven other breast cancer survivors. As part of a special feature, my cancer year was summarised in 150 words and put out there alongside my photograph:

'Find your own way to help kids understand.' Irene Tuffrey, 52, London.

Why did I agree? Because, rightly or wrongly, I fancied that it might help some people to read about Owl. I knew 150 words is nothing (you've read almost 400 words so far) so I urged the journalist to include a link to this blog, for those who'd like to find out more. It won't suit all (read: most) families but it might help just one or two, I reckoned.

"Of course," she agreed. "I will."

But the web address wasn't there, just the paltry 150 words, so what's the point? Worse: it included several misquotes, including "quotes" of what my children allegedly said. (It starts badly enough in the headline: I don't use the word "kids").

Note to self: never agree to this sort of thing again, unless I write it myself or have editorial control.

I haven't dreamt up the messages about cancer making you more loved / healthy / fulfilled / worthwhile.

It's all there in the pen portraits of the seven other women. (Although there's no guarantee, we now know, that they really said what's written.)

In fact the one about healthy eating is printed in extra-large font with full details of the life-transforming diet book. I'm not surprised, as the interviewer was clearly taken by this. She told me all about it on the phone, hinting that I might like to try the diet too. I thanked her politely, saying I'm glad it helped Ms 'Make it the start of a healthier you' (that's the headline she got) but personally I didn't feel the need for a new diet.

(Between you and me, I'm just glad I can enjoy the old one.)

"I just need to find one more woman to interview," the journalist said.

"For some reason, I've only got younger women. I need to find someone over the age of 60. Do you know of anyone who'd be happy to share her story?"

As it happened, I did. I rang Choir Friend, who is in her early 60s.

"Well, yes, I don't mind," said Choir Friend. "But I don't really have a story. I mean, I had breast cancer, it was treated, it's over, I'm fine, and I just carry on with my life. It hasn't really affected me that much and I hardly think about it anymore."

Now that, I told her, is exactly the kind of story that should go into Wommag. I mean, how utterly reassuring would that be to other women?

Look everyone, it's possible to have cancer without it transforming your life.

No story to tell? Why on earth is THAT not a story? From where I'm sitting, it sounds like the best story of all.

So I emailed the journalist and told her as much.

"My friend," I wrote in my email, "had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy this winter. She says that she has nothing interesting to say because she doesn't think her life has changed at all, she just dealt with it and got on with it. Personally, I think that's actually a really important perspective: that cancer doesn't have to be a highly interesting and life changing event, but simply one of the many things that can happen to you!"

The journalist replied:

"I've just found someone to be my 60-something, thankfully but thanks so much for your help, I'm interested to find out why it's been so hard to find women in the older age group when there are so many of them going through diagnosis..."

Perhaps they are just more like Choir Friend, dealing with cancer in whatever way they can without feeling the need to have a New Life afterwards? Or perhaps they do have a New Life, but it's less glamorous, more full of aches and pains and exhaustion, and therefore of less interest to glossy magazines?

The 60-something in Wommag said (wait for it)...

"Having breast cancer transformed my life - for the better... within months of my diagnosis I'd left my husband, started an Open University degree and changed jobs... I've raised £120,000..."

You can see why Wommag liked her story better than Choir Friend's. They want Positive. Dramatic. Transformative.

Something to look forward to then, and no pressure, if you're a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient picking up Wommag in the consultant's waiting room.

But I wonder, now, who this is really written for. I imagine all these women reading this, the women who have survived breast cancer and feel that their lives are not better, but more difficult now. Why don't we read anything about them? It makes me even more regretful that my story featured in Wommag.

I want to say to those women: Sorry if this makes you feel inadequate, as if you've failed in some way, having done nothing special to cope with your illness. 

I feel uncomfortable nowadays, when I hear people say things like Hasn't she coped well with all this.

I have coped in the only way I can. So will you, when cancer hits you. It will be your way, no better and no worse than mine, just different.

I'd like to propose another magazine feature.

It goes like this.

Breast cancer?*
It's rotten.
It robbed me of my energy / faculties / sanity / bodily functions.

*Could easily be substituted for: Bereavement / Rheumatoid arthritis / Depression

Here are some pen portraits of breast cancer survivors.

  • Breast cancer hasn't changed my life. (Yes, well spotted, that's Choir Friend in the photograph.)
  • I had breast cancer last year and I'm still tired / achy / worried. But I mustn't complain because aren't I lucky? (Could this be Yours Truly? No comment.)
  • I never got used to my flat chest / reconstruction / new hair.
  • I haven't taken up fundraising / a new degree / a new job / a new husband. No... Instead, I've had to give up my volunteering job / sex life / hobbies.

The title of this fascinating feature would be:

WARNING: a sprinkling of breast cancer may not improve the flavour of life.

Editors, if you're reading this: I will provide my journalistic services for free. Plenty of material to choose from. Please form an orderly queue.