Blog Post: an anniversary, cake, cancer and why stories are important.

It’s my birthday on 29th September. I am 32. Which is a profoundly uninteresting birthday.
But the birthday marks 10 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. Hodgkins Lymphoma. They caught it quite late on in its development.

10 years ago it became clear that I had been losing a lot of weight and had lumps in my neck. I put it down to the fact that I was lighting 4 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and marketing another 3 (because that’s a sympathetic skills set) and working all hours.
After a while I went to see a doctor. He told me I was a bit of a hypochondriac. The senseless twat. So I went back to work.

I kept losing weight, found it harder and harder to get through the day, kept forgetting things, falling asleep, losing track of where I was. But thought that maybe this is what not being in university was like for everybody.
After the summer in Edinburgh I returned to Sheffield where I had graduated and where a lovely, brilliant man called Reuben had given me a job as his assistant. He ran the Drama Studio in Sheffield and it’s to him an awful lot of us who have gone on to have careers in theatre owe a great deal.
Anyway Reuben was a stickler for rules. It’s the only way to have supportive order in a student theatre I suppose. I was up a ladder, I passed out and fell off. He refused to let me return to work until I had seen a doctor. Despite my vigorous protestations.

I wasn’t in the office 30 seconds before he had checked me in to the hospital which conveniently was next door.

I couldn’t go in to hospital you see because, I explained, I hadn’t had any money for months, it was pay day and my birthday and I intended to go out and drink as much of the city dry as I could in celebration of my turning 22.

The doctor looked at me like a man who had just told a clearly sick man-child that he needed an emergency operation and was not believing that the kid in front of him was saying “well no thank you I’ve got to get down Weatherspoons”.

They put me under and cut a 4 inch hole in my neck.

When I woke up my entire family, assorted loved ones and friends and half a dozen doctors were there. There was a great big hole in my neck.

A doctor looked at me and said,”It is Cancer I’m afraid Alan.”

“It’s what?” says I.

The collected faces utter a collected “oh shit”

You see in all the speed of it everyone assumed that somebody else had actually spelt out to me that even a moron could see I had cancer. But nobody had. And in the moment that I uttered “It’s what?” that lack of communication became crystal clear to all.

It’s an awful lot to take in with only 6 words. In times to come it would get a lot worse, the prognosis moved from “erm” to “oh fuck” over the next year, but even still those 6 words require a great deal of unpacking. And it’s not the sort of thinking that can be done in a paper nightgown, surrounded by people all of whom are looking utterly pettrified and with a great big bloody hole in your neck.

At that moment the nurses of ward P, Royal Hallamshire Hospital decided that a man should not spend a birthday without comfort and came trooping round the corner en masse carrying a Sara Lee Chocolate Gateau singing Happy Birthday.

It was too much for me. I burst immediately in to tears.

10 years on and it feels like a life time ago. I don’t recognise, but stand in awe of the young man who would go on to get used to increasingly depressing odds, have a bone marrow transplant, spend 9 weeks enclosed in a room forbidden to exit, hit rock bottom and claw his way up watching back to back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am not that man. I am no longer that strong. I suppose I got that bit older. That bit more fragile. And more importantly I am no longer flanked by my mother who has since seen sense and moved herself to the states where it is a lot harder to daily lean on her.
Thankfully- and with glorious tribute to our health service and superlative nurses and doctors- I no longer need to be as strong as that young man.

But I still have the narrative. I still have the stories of what happened- the various moments of light relief, of absurdity, of statistics overcome, comrades fallen by the way side and plain silliness. And occassionaly I run them out, dust them off to new people. I tell them like you double check the gas is not still on, the back door is locked long after you’ve gone to bed the first time. To make sure they are still back there. These stories bring me great comfort. Because they are stories.

I haven’t ever told one of them in public but it felt appropriate now: writing about nurses and chocolate cakes on here seemed to be as good a place as any. I think it might be healthy.

The therapist who was assigned to me when I was in my locked room having my bone marrow transplant told me that one day this whole thing would be one story that it took no longer than an hour to tell. Focus on the story to come and get through it.

I got through it.

Such anniversaries demand grand, vainglorious ceremony. I put it to Twitter what I should do on the occasion and various suggestions came back (dinner with friends, visits to loved ones, stop smoking). I hope no one will be offended that whilst excellent suggestions and brilliant advice for how to improve the quality of your life generally I wont be doing any of these specifically on the 29th.

Instead I- with the admirable assistance of Slung Low- will be exploding a sara lee chocolate gateau on the 29th September 2010. It feels like the most apt gesture after some thought.

An exploding Sara Lee Chocolate Gateau. Ten years to the day since they cut a hole in my neck, all looked at me and said “oh shit”.

Fire in the hole!


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