The Word We Fear Most of All


We went to see a production of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer in Manchester recently (an excellent spot by my brother-in-law). The show is now going to London, and I will be interested to see what the reviewers make of it there.

There was something pleasingly “meta” about it: the writer did a preliminary voiceover about the impossibility of making a piece of theatre about cancer, and intervened again in the final moments to direct the action of both actors and audience. The music and dancing were great, and exploded some myths. My favourite number was an energetic rendering entitled (excuse me) Even c**** get cancer. This is dead right: illness of any kind never made anyone morally superior. The cast was diverse and talented. The writer had consulted with people who have had or are living with cancer, and a local woman with cancer came up on to the stage at the end of the production to tell her own story briefly.

I recognised the experience of endless waiting and escalating uncertainty; and I especially recognised the insistence of the central character that she didn’t really belong in the cancer wards and clinics. She would be out of there soon – it was all a mistake (only it turned out it wasn’t).

Well, I never belonged in the cancer clinic, did I? And I’m still talking like that. I have wondered loud and aloud and long if my cancer Thing was all a mistake, as those of you who have read my previous posts will know. And I didn’t identify much with some other aspects of the cancer experience as it was portrayed in the play. The production was very big on how cancer pursues and haunts its hosts. Characters in bulbous, misshapen, sparkly, tentacled costumes dogged the actors and caught them out and hindered them. By the end, cancer had invaded the stage itself; big balloon-like structures had grown before the audience’s eyes and forced some of the cast into the stalls.

Because it appears that this production was thoroughly and sensitively researched, I have to believe that most people who experience cancer experience it like this – as something encroaching and overwhelming and terrifying. The production opened with the voiceover suggesting that “cancer” is “the word we fear most of all”. But I only fleetingly felt that fear: most of my energy was pitted against the medics who (according to my narrative) set me, against my will and without my consent, on the conveyor belt of treatment, clinic visits and side effects. It was them I experienced as invasive and overwhelming.

And this is the conundrum. There is a possibility that I was so scared of cancer that I couldn’t even look at my fear directly. Maybe I had (and have) such an intractable case of denial that I could only approach the Big C sideways. And undeniably, cancer can be fatal, and cancer treatment can disfigure, maim and sicken. But wait. Here am I, three years after diagnosis, probably fitter than I have ever been. Here is my husband, who now has a small skin cancer on his head. I fairly confidently predict that, after its imminent removal, he will live on unscathed but just slightly dented.  Here are hundreds and thousands of people who have undergone cancer treatment, walking around, unidentifiable and indistinguishable from the general population, and often as well as their neighbours.  Survival rates for many common cancers are increasing all the time.

What I’m trying to say (again) is: let’s get the fear in proportion. Let’s call out the Mancunian Matters review of the Pacifist’s Guide which described the play as “a creative take on how we look at terminal illness”. This is sloppy talk. There is, of course, a relationship between cancer and terminal illness, but we should not equate the two (even in this play, of the eight or nine characters who had cancer, only one died). Cancer is in fact an everyday condition: one in three of us get it in some form. There are many other common conditions and events which can be life – threatening but ain’t necessarily so: among these are stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and simply falling over. But I have yet to see even one obituary or death notice describing the dear departed’s “battle bravely fought” against a broken hip. Which is what my dad ultimately died of, and his dad before him. And there were no songs or sparkly costumes.



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