A man rides a bicycle away from the darkness and into the light.

Keeping Cancer in Its Place

It was several years ago now, but I remember an older work colleague telling me he had just been to a close friend’s funeral. I commiserated and he said: “Jim, these days it’s like shucking peas.” He was in his seventies then, and friends were starting to fall away. I’m 67 in a couple of weeks, as of my writing this, and it looks like I’m now on the same trajectory.

A farewell to a friend with prostate cancer

Last Sunday, as of this writing, I attended a farewell and celebration of the life led by my old friend Geoff. He died a couple of weeks earlier at his home in Switzerland, and this was a chance for his UK friends to bid him bon voyage.

Geoff contracted prostate cancer some years back and was treated using High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU). This form of treatment uses ultrasound energy to destroy cancer cells in the prostate.

He suggested I investigate HIFU when I, too, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My doctor deemed it would not work for me, but to all intents it appeared to have worked for Geoff. Sadly, he died very quickly from a brain tumor, but there is some thought that the cancer may have been linked to his prostate cancer.

Part joyful and part sad

The memorial was part joyful and part deeply sad, as these events tend to be. The celebrant, in collaboration with Geoff’s partner, concocted a lovely address which summed up his life so well. He was a musician and composer, and once the address concluded, various people got up and sang his songs as the sun peeped from behind the clouds.

I’ve had other friends and family die before, but this was the first occasion when a contemporary (he had just turned seventy) had gone. The Bible cites the natural lifespan of man as being three score years and ten, and while this has been extended thanks to medical science, this was the first death of a friend who had lived a full life. This won’t be the last event such as this. I’ll be attending others in the years to come, and one of these days it’ll be me who is the center of attention.

The meaning of specific words

One thing I disagree with when remembering people we have lost is the use of the word "fighting" when describing how they dealt with cancer. Words are freighted with meaning, and I think using such terminology seems to imply that if someone is not strong or brave and doesn’t fight hard enough, then cancer will get the upper hand and they will succumb. In effect, that the weak will be found out and die.

I think that’s not helpful and not how cancer works. If anyone is fighting my cancer, it is my doctors with their arsenal of medical weapons.

Dictating the course of my life

I’m not in the least brave, which is not to say that I don’t think cancer should be put in its place. While I was undergoing radiotherapy treatment, which lasted more than a month, I always traveled to the hospital on my bicycle. To be fair, it was only a few miles away and was no struggle, but when friends questioned this decision, I would just say I wanted to keep fit and healthy, and half an hour on my bike was a good way to achieve that.

That answer was not strictly true. The real reason I cycled to my appointment with the chrome donut was to put cancer in its place. This was me telling my cancer that I was damned if I was about to become a victim, that I would not have cancer dictating the course of my life, and if I wanted to cycle then so be it.

Not letting myself get down

I’ve taken a similar tack with the side effects produced by a combination of the radiotherapy and the hormone therapy that I’ve had to endure. I do my best not to let them get me down.

Reading this back, I see what I’ve written has a whiff of virtue signaling combined with some form of tough guy spirit, which I certainly don’t recognize in myself.

Putting cancer in its place

I’m also aware that I’ve been lucky; if anyone can be lucky who has cancer. So far, my treatment seems to be working, my cancer has not metastasized, and I’ve yet to undergo chemotherapy. Perhaps those indignities are waiting around the corner like a robber with a blackjack.

Here’s what I know: I’m not battling cancer, I’m not fighting a war against it, but what I am trying to do is put it in its place. I’m not going to let it have the pleasure of ruining my life while it undergoes its gruesome work of trying to ruin my health.

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