When you are first diagnosed with cancer, you can’t help but reflect on the experiences of people in the public eye and their dealings with cancer. Of late quite a few famous people have died from cancer. It started with David Bowie quickly followed Alan Rickman. Then there was Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne.
Although all of these cases are tragic, the responses by the media to them was quite shocking. Three of these people chose to keep their diagnosis secret. Caroline Aherne was slightly different in the fact that she did reveal that she was having treatment for throat cancer. Although this was a shock, what also was equally amazing was that her whole life had been affected by cancer as both her and her brother were diagnosed with a type of eye cancer when they were very young. Her mother, somehow, managed to put a positive spin on this for both Caroline and her brother and they both went onto lead extremely successful lives, with cancer being an afterthought.
This was equally true for Bowie, Rickman and Wood too. They were all able to continue with their professional lives, without cancer intruding until the last possible moment. In the case of Bowie, he was able to complete a whole album of work that reflected heavily on his own mortality. When Black Star was first released, nobody questioned this. It was only after his death that’s its hidden meaning was discovered.
The media were quick to judge these celebrities on their secrecy. In a world where everyone’s tea is shared on Twitter or Facebook, why were these celebs keeping quiet? Having cancer or any other illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It should be embraced and brought out into the light. Surely if they went public about it, it would make people who have cancer feel empowered.
In fact, the opposite is true. When you have cancer, you turn inward. Everything becomes about self-preservation. However, those around you cling onto those stories of famous people conquering cancer. My cancer is very unusual but my sister being the clever person she is, managed to find a famous person who had the same condition. This person was Adam Yauch otherwise known as MCA from the Beastie Boys. Both myself and my husband thought that this was very cool, because well, the Beastie Boys are very cool! Sadly, he died in 2012. This crushed my sister as it felt that my fate was somehow tied to his. What she failed to realise is that my tumour was probably very different to his tumour as my body is very different to his body. Also he probably had very different treatment from me as he was American and I was British. We both had very different experiences so trying to tie the two together was madness. Easier said than done though…
That said the experiences of those celebrities who choose to speak out can, at times, be inspiring. I remember when I was feeling down in the dumps after my first block of radiotherapy, seeing a picture of Michael Douglas frolicking around in the surf with his son. The year before, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and… well… it didn’t look good. However, here he was, having a laugh with his son. For some reason it made me realise that I could get through this. I too could be frolicking away somewhere in a matter of months. In fact, Douglas, has been very open about his cancer experience and its impact on his family. I remember watching an interview with him where he was publicising his film “Behind the Candelabra” about the life of Liberace. In the interview, he openly spoke of his anxiety about returning to acting. He didn’t think anyone would want to give him any parts because of his illness. I was gob smacked. This was Michael Douglas! Married to Catherine Zeta Jones! Part of Hollywood royalty! And he was having doubts about returning to work?!? It weirdly gave me some strength to know that if the son of Spartacus was having confidence issues about getting back in the saddle again, then I wasn’t the only one.
Another famous person who helped me a great deal is a controversial one. However, his autobiography was so cocky and so arrogant that it gave me kick up the back side when I well and truly needed one. That person is Lance Armstrong. Everyone knows the Lance Armstrong story. The all American sweetheart who bravely fought and beat testicular cancer and then went on to win a staggering number of Tour De Frances. We also know in great detail of his downfall. The drugs, the lies and the blackmail. Lance Armstrong, it is generally agreed, isn’t a nice man. But his attitude to his cancer was staggering. Being a true competitor, his approach to cancer was aggressive to put it mildly. I have subsequently found out that his autobiography was ghost written so how much of it was actually true, I guess we shall never know. At the time when I read it though, all this wasn’t known. I was amazed at his supreme confidence to take on his medical team about his treatment. He tried to find out as much about his cancer as possible. He ditched his first oncologist because he didn’t agree with the treatment that they were prescribing. In some ways the American healthcare system is more suited to this but to me, this was a revelation. I started to research a bit more about my cancer and question my oncologist more. Although I think Armstrong did take this to the extreme, it gave me shot in the arm to not accept the status quo. There would always be a man with a plan.
The final person with cancer who has helped me greatly is Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and author. He died of pneumonia from cancer of the oesophagus in 2011. He wrote a book that changed my life completely. That book was called “God is Not Good.” Before I read it, I felt I was an atheist but was ashamed to admit it. This book said what I had secretly thought, but had always been too afraid to say.
Of course being affected by a life limiting illness means that people pray for you. Unlike Hitchens, I don’t mind this. If it makes my friend, my colleague or my relative feel better, then so be it. This is because, like cancer, religion turns people to look inward. This is praised by practically all religions but it does create a very narrow viewpoint. It automatically creates a Them vs Us outlook. Although most religions will try and argue against this, I can’t fail to see it.
Also there’s a general view that if you are an atheist, you are boring and lacking in seeing the wonder in anything. I completely dispute this point of view. I love the fact that there are aspects in this world that we know nothing about, This is what makes where we live such a special and unique place. I love absolutely every single minute living on this amazing planet. When I die, I know that I have truly seen the best that life has to offer. I don’t need the thought of some afterlife to make me confront my situation. Knowing that I am alive, here and now, in all this wonder, is all I need make it through each day.