Sunday, 3 August 2008

6. On asking "how are you?"

There’s an obvious problem when people ask “How are you?” My father, who’s 95, solves it by saying “still here”. Which was funny for the first fifteen years or so, but has worn off a bit.

For me the best solution was offered by a nurse at the Royal Marsden. She said: “How are you today?” I replied testily: “Fine - apart from the cancer.” She snapped back: “That’s not what I asked. What I asked was: how are you today?” The key word is Today. One day at a time. And today, actually, is not too bad. Better than yesterday anyway.
In fact, I've had this problem before. Four years ago, I had major surgery to remove four or five feet of large bowel. When people asked how I was feeling, I'd reply with a single word: gutted. Gave me a laugh anyway.

In the weeks since the diagnosis, people have reacted to my cancer in different ways. Some are thrown in on themselves, considering their own futures, re-evaluating their own lives. Have they been good friends, good parents, good partners?

Others have been scouring the internet for solutions that “must be out there somewhere”. Medical trials, experimental drugs, ancient healing arts, spiritual intervention, prayer, reflexology, vitamin c, pomegranate juice. There are people with pancreatic cancer, apparently condemned by doctors to live just a few weeks, who years later are climbing Mount Everest and trekking to the North Pole. Thanks to radiotherapy and an awful lot of bean sprouts, Patrick Swayze will soon be back at the potter’s wheel with Demi Moore.

One or two people have been unable to look at me. They busy themselves around me but simply can’t bear to make eye contact. It’s not that they think cancer is catching; it’s just that they’re frightened of what they’ll see. A ghost maybe.

But mostly I’ve had a lot of very nice hugs - and the conversation has been much the same as it ever was. Gossip and scandal about people and social life and work and football.

And although millions of books have been written about it, and there’s even something of a vogue for cancer diaries, the disease really isn’t that fascinating. As I’ve said before, it’s just shadows. Shadows that are now part of me. Attack the shadows with chemotherapy and you attack the rest of me at the same time. Feed me – and you feed the shadows. Me and my shadows, walking down the avenue.

Yesterday, I had my first real wobble. New symptoms rendered me sick with tiredness and I barely got out of bed. As a result, a sudden panic that I was running out of time propelled me to the computer to frantically tidy up my finances and start constructing a “handover note” to Mary. This note may take some time. I mean, it’s easy enough to describe how to access my pension and get hold of the deeds to the house – but it takes time to explain the correct way to stack the dishwasher, how to change channels on Freeview, or what to do when you lose the toolbar on Word (again).

First thing tomorrow morning I’ll be back at the Marsden seeing yet another distinguished medic, Professor Lord Christopher Woodhouse, who also happens to be the 6th Baron Terrington. No doubt this will be followed by loads more pricking, prodding and poking, albeit at the behest of a genuine aristocrat. “He not busy being born is busy dying” is a line from Dylan, and I now know what he’s getting at.

Last Wednesday, we celebrated my dad’s 95th birthday. Yes, he’s 95 and my mum’s 91. We’re a very long-lived family. Ooops.