So You’ve Got Cancer!

Observatory

I’ve gone a bit Henry Miller today, for which I apologise in advance. It’s a work-in-progress from ‘Word Monkey’, the third part of my memoir trilogy, which began with ‘Paperboy’ and continued with ‘Film Freak’.

So, you’ve been worried about your health for a while but you’re like Cleopatra, in denial. You think if you ignore it, it will go away. It won’t. You need to see a doctor right now. So you finally go, and the doc says it is That Word. The other one starting with a C that you can’t bring yourself to say. But now you have to learn to say it.

Here are some of the things you should really know. The stuff nobody tells you.

1 Get In The System

If you’re not in the system you won’t be treated, and goodness, that’s quite a cancer backlog we have now here in the UK, all the way to the year in which the Blade Runner sequel is set. The trouble is radiology and chemo are time and labour intensive, and you don’t have time to waste.

Your doctor, who probably tells thirty people a day the same as they’ve told you, has delivered the news that you have cancer. You may have Googled the subject by now and found a lot of upbeat news about survival rates. Hope is great clickbait. The data will be useless to you because it’s predicated on sets of circumstances unique to each patient. So let’s cut through some of the bullshit.

First, get in the fucking system. I cannot stress how important this is. I had to do it on the very day they shut all the hospitals because of the pandemic. So if someone as flaky as me can manage that (it involved dozens of phone calls and meetings at four different treatment centres, all of which were in the process of closing their doors) you can too!

2 It Hurts Like A Son Of A Bitch

Actually it’s not the cancer that hurts so much as the cure. Radiology and chemotherapy are still the main weapons in the cancer arsenal; the blowtorch and the bomb. These are more refined and targeted than the same two Victorian-style treatments my grandfather was given, but only just. You don’t have to bite on a stick anymore. If you’ve got a surface lump it can easily be burned out, but in the process your skin gets fried, splits and bleeds. Forget all the fancy drugs; you’ll need just two things; salt water and Paracetamol. You’ll find yourself moaning through your teeth a lot.

I first had cancer at 39, in my upper gum. Radiotherapy put a hole right through it like a Dan Dare ray gun or something. I ate through a straw for two months. (Terry Jones voice): ‘I got better!’

3 You’ll Really Get To Know Your Toilet

In a way that you never imagined. Every crack and blemish on the opposite wall, every tiny dead insect that’s missed the mop. You’ll be there a lot, sometimes twenty times a night, depending on what kind of cancer you have. Breast cancer gals, don’t think you’re immune either – you’ll be taking meds with side effects. Take a book with you, keep your mind off it. That’s the controllable part. Next comes the uncontrollable part.

Because sometimes you’ll suddenly be using your toilet when you’re out and about. At the opera, say. It’s not shameful or embarrassing, it’s just life, rude and disgusting in all its forms. If you’ve had to change an elderly relative’s full pants in Starbucks then you’ll know that you can cope with anything, and it gets less embarrassing as you go along. You start by being terribly English and apologising, and in under two weeks you’re shouting ‘Hey, the fuck you looking at?’

4 You’ll Be So Goddam Tired

More tired than the tiredest man in Snoozyland, more tired than the Yawning Man himself. So sleep. Sleep for days at a time. Take morphine if you’re offered it but don’t try to get out of bed after or you’ll be peeing in cupboards and taking the rubbish out without your pants on. I don’t do drugs because I fear loss of control, but I took the morphine, which turns you into one of the Walking Dead, only softer and fuzzier.

They always talk about cancer in military terminology, in bouts and battles. Don’t. Don’t fight it. Push back but go with the flow. You’ll find yourself saying ‘I can manage!’ a lot. Don’t. Let them do it. Pretend you’re French and surrender. Sleep and watch TV. I watched every single episode of ‘Veep’ while I was flattened and don’t remember a single fucking one of them, that’s how much Morphine I took. It was pretty funny though.

5 The Cure Is (Almost) As Bad As The Disease

Before you worry about dying, you’ve a bigger problem. Chemo. It’s the Agent Orange of the medical world. It takes ages for you to get over its pernicious effects. It’s a poison that tries to kill everything except you. It makes you fall over, go numb, feel sick, and you’re going to love this part; it sneakily attacks your mind, makes you forget stuff , undoes your ability to connect memories or even remember what you were doing five minutes ago. It’s called Chemo Brain and it’s a horrible thing to happen to a writer.

6 Never Get Your CT Scans Done On A Sunday

Hospitals are confusing. Take a stroll through one. Familiarise yourself. Go all the way to the back, where visitors don’t go and the scary stuff happens. Listen to recommendations but take control of your treatment. Try to avoid having anything invasive done on a Sunday. Sunday is intern day in hospitals. I had a canula fitted by a kid who tore my vein wide open and then ran off in a panic, to be smoothly replaced by a professional who pretended that nothing had happened as she bandaged my arm. I still have the scar. I hope he fails med school. And veterinary college. I hope he ends up selling handmade puppets at craft fairs in order to buy food.

7 Don’t Get All Fretty About Your Prognosis

I had to wait three hours to be told that my chemo had failed. Then it happened again, when I failed a second time.  The third time was the best, though; after another three hour wait I was told I was now terminal. Terminal is an empty train in the last station, it’s fucking Auschwitz. I was a bit dazed when I came out of the doctor’s, so I went to the pub, drank three pints of Camden Hell’s and went home to watch Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’. Sorted. There’s nothing that a few choruses of ‘It’s Nicer In Nice’ can’t cure.

8 Be Careful Who You Tell

Whatever you do, don’t put it on social media. I did. I wanted to reach people who were too frightened to get diagnosed, and I’m glad I did so because a huge number of people responded and actually made appointments. Well-meaning friends will also surprise/upset you by suddenly recommending royal jelly and fermented beetroot stalks for your wellbeing. They love you and mean well. Smile, nod and completely ignore all of them. Throw the jars and packets away.

9 There Are Bad People Out There

I was also confronted by various members of the Maniac Community, including a neighbour I barely know who bought me a book telling me cancer was curable with a raw vegetable diet. It was written by a discredited African doctor who refused to tell people that HIV caused AIDS and was eventually arrested in an airport fleeing with suitcases of money made from quack cures. Dr Sebi, look him up, it’s a great story. My neighbour asked me what I thought of the book. I told her it was shit. Her African friends started yelling at me. They still believe that this ointment-peddling lying conman is a saint. I told a friend, who thought the whole thing was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing. Now that’s the kind of attitude I can handle.

10 Fuck Everybody Else

It gets worse. There’s a chance you may also be called in to the doctor’s office and told your time is up, as I have been. It’s weird but although you’ll get a bit Dylan Thomas for a while, things soon settle down to being sort-of OK. Now this is your time. Don’t try to fill some kind of ghastly bucket list that includes a sunset in Thailand. You should have done that by now, anyway. You’ll need to make plans for the people who’ll find it more difficult to accept than you.

Pick the single thing that makes you happiest, no matter how ordinary. My favourite place is in my 1950’s armchair (dragged out of a Spanish basement by an upholsterer who took two years to finish the job, don’t ask the cost because you’d faint) next to all my lovely books, overlooking the grey and rainy London skyline, with a cup of tea and some biscuits and the person I love most on the planet somewhere near. (Really, you would actually faint.)

You’ll feel sad until you re-familiarise yourself with history and the terrible fates that have awaited others, many of them children. Then you’ll be glad you were here at all. But honestly, fuck everybody else. The things that will make you happiest now are the things you overlooked or took for granted. And you develop a deep, unquenchable, everlasting love for them. Now is your time.

 

30 comments on “So You’ve Got Cancer!”

  1. Jo W says:

    Chris, your post today was thought provoking to say the least. I look forward(if that’s the right thing to say) to reading the third part of the trilogy which will be The Life of Christopher Fowler.
    I had to watch ‘imself go through his cancer treatments, not good. A lot of encouragement and cheering from the sidelines is needed which can also take its toll on loved ones. I hope Pete is ok? We have seen the effect on others and have always made a point of asking how they really are and offering an ‘ear’ when it all becomes too much. After all, they can’t push how they feel on to the sufferer, can they?
    Well, that’s my say, so I’ll just send love and (virtual) hugs to you and to Pete. X

    P.s. He’s still in remission but down to yearly checks now. Thank you NHS!

  2. Paul+C says:

    Thrilled to hear that you’re writing a third volume of memoirs (great title too). I’ve always thought that Paperboy and Film Freaks are your best works. My late mother underwent a long and difficult period with chemotherapy so everything you say rings true. I made a very inept nurse (nobody gave any advice about this role) but the real nurses were all excellent. Great to see you’re improving.

    I actually like Henry Miller…..the descriptions of his early life in Black Spring are masterful and his strange collection of essays on The Books in My Life is a must read.

  3. Polly Dymock says:

    As always, a thoughtful, informed and well written post. I am about to finish taking the drugs for breast cancer, after 10 years. I’d like to add, if your oncologist recommends chemo, ask what the odds of chemo helping are likely to be. My oncologist said “up to 4%”. I said I didn’t care for those odds & she said neither did she, but she had to offer chemo. I felt it was pointless to offer when baldness, vomiting et al were realistic side effects.

  4. Roger Allen says:

    “it sneakily attacks your mind, makes you forget stuff , undoes your ability to connect memories or even remember what you were doing five minutes ago.”

    Life does that anyway.
    All the same, good luck, Chris, and bash on. It’s amazing how insensitive and optimistic the Whooh-followers are. Steve Jobs probably dies when he needn’t because he went in for alternative medicine. He knew about computers so he’d say alternative computers were claptrap, but when it came to staying alive… There’s anextra-ordinary letter from Ted Hughes to Philip LArkin, who was dying of cancer of the oesophagus, telling him about a wonderful alternative cure.
    Cancer’s about the only life-threatening thing I haven’t had. Yet. It’s something to look forward to.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Waiting for number 11 in the set — ‘Immunotherapy Rides Up.’ One definite positive is that clinical studies have shown its beneficial effects are durable over the long term even after treatment ends. It may be the body with which you have been at odds for most of your life is finally making amends. We can only hope.

  6. Wayne+Mook says:

    Just a quick note, it is just sh one t, and I wish there was something I could say or do.

    All I can say is thank you for the intelligent and often funny comments. And if you ever feel like venting your spleen here we can take it.

    If you need an almost stranger to talk or shout at I’m happy to oblige.

    My little one has a dyslexia test today, the local council Trafford are no help. But being sydlexic, I know it’s best to get it flagged up as early as possible. i was only told i had learning difficulties when I went back to Uni as a mature (don’t laugh) student.

    As always get in the system, if they can ignore you they will so be shouty or a nuisance, how ever you do it or whatever the problem get in there.

    At the moment I’m being treated for bereavement/depression and stress with the added fun of IBS. Getting in the system has helped no end. I thought I could bully my way through, i have in the past but it takes it’s toll and on me/you and especially your loved ones. And it’s surprising how kind and understanding people can be. Although it has taken ages to get counselling, start beginning of November, it’s quicker than getting dangerous cladding removed, which is happening now and taking longer than expected as it turns out the cladding on the balconies is dangerous as well and the fire door are 15 mins resistant when they should be 30 mins. At least I’m not paying for it.

    Well I typed it as quick as I could.

    Wayne.

  7. Frances says:

    My husband did the chemo so I know how awful it can be. As things progressed he turned to some more doubtful treatments. He had a couple of friends who seemed to know all sorts of weird “cures”, one involving worms. He knew how I felt about these cures but I knew how important it was to him to try everything – even the ridiculous. As long as he was getting proper medical care I kept my thoughts to myself. In a weird way they worked as it kept him optimistic, not easy when you have a very invasive cancer. His happy place was in front of his easel. I’m glad you have a place which makes you happy too.

  8. Pauline. says:

    This is right inside the whale. Thanks.

  9. Helen+Martin says:

    I’ll keep a printout of this one- plus the comments- just in case. The other thing that hits loved ones hard is the several forms of dementia and several of your points fit here as well. I know there are a number of people on this site who are in your case and taking strength from what you say. Good on you for tolerating all the irritation caused by the unhelpful suggestions and for realising that it all arises from people caring. A note for those standing by: all the patient wants is for you to listen, not suggest cures or alternatives, just listen and empathise. And to medical people when faced by an angry/frustrated patient: do not say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” If anything will put the patient or their carer over the edge it’s that phrase. Thank you for listening and all the best to you and Pete.

  10. Andy Morley says:

    Thanks Chris for your insights on this thing we call life. Please really enjoy your tea and biscuits and above all FUCK EVERYONE ELSE!

  11. Joan says:

    I really feel for you Chris, my Husband had ALS and I used to think it was the worst disease to get, but maybe not as he never had to go through any treatments or be offered false hopes. The one thing that got him through a lot was reading, reading, and more reading! The world of books takes you away and let’s you be free. I think you are very brave, and wish you all the best.

  12. Nelle Stokes says:

    Greetings from only-kind-of-sunny Florida! I am reading this while on the phone with the second insurance agent of this particular 30 minute-and-counting call, making yet another appeal for my 97-year-old mother’s care to be continued. I have to keep pressing ‘mute’ so they don’t hear me snort as I laugh/cry.

    “The things that will make you happiest now are the things you overlooked or took for granted. And you develop a deep, unquenchable, everlasting love for them.”

    Yes. Thank you for your wisdom, wit, and candor. Enjoy the hell out of that armchair (and share a picture if you feel like it so we can all ogle the upholstery!)

  13. Debra Matheney says:

    I recently paid 3 time’s the cost of the original chair to have it recovered. But we love our chairs so never mind.

    I appreciate your candor. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that there are small pleasures all around us if we stop, look and listen. Birdsong has been my private joy. Their chorus accompanies me most days. Cats, books, some streaming have all helped and meditation helps my anxiety.

    My husband once gave me a birthday card that said on the front “Don’t cry because you are a year older.” Inside said, Cry because people are stupid and it makes you sad.” That about sums it up. Take care.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    You are never more alone than when you’ve have been seriously ill. The white-coated phalanx, the agonized loved ones, the sympathetic others trying to be helpful. All so much ambient noise. It can be frightening, this being alone with your thoughts. Or it can bring clarity, perhaps for the first time; the precious essence finally appearing from the accumulated dross through the mind’s wondrous alchemy. And if science’s best current guess is correct, you exhale and emerge from your confinement wary — always wary — but forever changed.

  15. Roger Allen says:

    Given our other future options, Admin, visiting a friend yesterday I saw she had a book called A Guide to Dementia. I’m still wondering whether it was about dementia or an instruction manual.
    On the other hand, George Melly said that as a surrealist he’d spent his life preparing for dementia and rather enjoyed it.

  16. Peter+T says:

    A minor point, but I don’t think a failed medic will ever make it as a vet. The entry requirements are (or were) higher and the course much harder (as were those who followed it). Just imagine that kid putting a cannula in a German Shepherd.

  17. Celia Munro says:

    I have loved your Bryant and May books even though I have come late to them. For your books and for your posts, thank you. You have made me laugh when there wasn’t much to laugh about and given me a raft of, albeit fictional, friends whom I love, and shown me a wonderful London, a place I will never be able to visit in person. I’m sorry for the diagnosis. We will all be less without you but we are more human, more curious and more interested because of you. I wish quite badly I could say or do something which would be of help but some journeys must be taken with a favourite chair and one’s thoughts and courage. I wish you as much of the best as you can hold.

  18. Paul+C says:

    Hi Roger – good to hear a mention of George Melly whose autobiography Owning Up is a wonderful read. The other 2 volumes (Souse Mouse and Rum, Bum and Concertina) are pretty dull though.

  19. Stephen Groves says:

    All I have to say is that you have been and still are my hero.
    STALKY

  20. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Congrats on your election to the Detection Club! What’s next?

  21. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Permit me to add my congratulations on your Detection Club induction. It’s probably a good thing that the membership oath (see below) can’t be violated retroactively — considering Arthur’s regular reliance on the occult and what might be regarded in most quarters as ‘mumbo-jumbo’, for his divinations. At least there’s no jiggery-pokery involved.

    “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

    Can we look forward to a contribution from you in the next Club publication ? A novella or short story will do for me.

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Are you now using Twitter as some kind of dead drop to pass on cryptic messages about a future B&M project ? For example, your response to a reply to your tweet about your induction (or is it more aptly, ‘deduction ?’) into the Detection Club of Great Britain which involves swearing the oath above while rubbing Eric the Skull. The commenter noted: ‘ That skull thing didn’t work out so well for Arthur Bryant. ‘ To which you replied: ‘I wouldn’t use past tense on the skull just yet.’ H-m-m. Are you going to fess up ? Or are we going to have to figure it out one hieroglyph at a time ?

  23. Adam says:

    Christopher,

    I’m so sorry to hear your cancer has come back & is diagnosed as terminal. That sucks.

    I just want to tell you that, as one of your American fans, this year I requested copies of your most recent 5 Bryant & May books for Christmas presents. I discovered the two detectives, when I was living in London in 2008 – 2013. Been a fan, since.

    I’ve recently started rereading the first 5 books in the B&M series. I’m enjoying them more than the first time I read them. They are matchless.

    BTW – I really enjoy the London “small details” you include in your books. I audited the London Blue Badge Guide’s 2-year training course back in 2011 – 2013 & recognize a large number of your references & details.

    Job well done in crafting the stories & in including those “small details.” I thank you for your books!

    Adam

  24. Anji Doyle says:

    Dear Mr Fowler, I have read every single one of your books and I have adored every one, Disturbia and Roofworld being two of my all time favourite works of fiction. I love Bryant and May and White Corridor is absolutely awesome. I just want to say that your books enriched my my life as an avid reader. Your gift has made a lot of people happy.

  25. Anji Doyle says:

    *your books HAVE enriched my life and have always satisfied my curious nature.

  26. Liz+Thompson says:

    Just do whatever makes you (and Pete) feel ok/calmer/better/less wound up or worried. If that’s your special chair, go for it. Write if you feel like it, read if you prefer, laugh when you can. If you want to curse, just get on with it. Anything that relieves the pressure……and we’re all here to listen whenever you want to say something.

  27. Roger Allen says:

    Trivial compared with cancer, but “sometimes you’ll suddenly be using your toilet when you’re out and about. “. came true for me In my case I was on a remote (I thought) unpeopled path when I had uncontrollable diarrhoeia – a (rare – well that’s what they say) side-effect of a medicine I’d started taking. It’s amazing how sympathetic people are when they see you having a (too late) shit behind a bush in the country and it’s amazing how many people there are in apparently unpeopled places. It was also amazing how sympathetic people were on my painful and smelly journey home. The one thing I learned was – if you might find yourself shitting uncontrollably always have a bin-liner or large plastic bag at hand.
    I was lucky; someone gave me one. It means you can sit down on your way home by public transport.

  28. Des Burkinshaw says:

    Get in the system. My God, how true that is. I started itching randomly in 2006. It went from bad to worse until I casually mentioned to my wife that if it wasn’t for her and my daughter I’d rather be dead – 24/7 itching all over, blood everywhere, no sleep.
    With this info she sat on their heads until I was put into the care of the Dermatology team at the Royal London – in 2020. They’ve made great strides and I’m having actual treatment (light therapy) after 15 years of suffering – but only because I’m in the system.
    They’re busy and stressed so you can’t blame them, but as you say Chris / you have to take responsibility for getting in. 2006-2020 was me not getting in the system.
    Thanks for your honesty and best wishes for the road ahead.

  29. Sitting with the person you love most in the world, with a cup of tea, listening to the rain outside is a massively under appreciated pleasure.

  30. R.L. says:

    I have only recently come to this blog via The Book of Forgotten Authors. The post above is very good indeed, and so are many of the comments.

    One sometimes hears of people who decline treatment for cancer. I think I might be one of them if it ever grips me. I wonder whether Mr Fowler ever considered that. I am five years older than he is, which may be significant.

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