Some years ago the Cancer Council of Australia ran an advertising campaign based on the phrase “Cancer: It’s a word not a sentence”. Clever in a sort of pretty unsubtle way of course, it was used to mark a change from the days when the only possible response to cancer was a kind of surgical blitzkrieg, the chances of success low, to those where new chemical and radiation treatments began to be introduced and refined, either to improve the success of surgical intervention, or as stand-alone procedures. Remission periods grew longer, outright cures became possible, so the Cancer Council was right to tell people not to despair that they were doomed when the doctor uttered that doom-laden C-word, but to be optimistic, to have hope the treatment could be worthwhile.

But, leaving behind the intended meaning of the slogan, that cancer is no longer, necessarily, a [Death] Sentence, the phrase is completely wrong. Cancer isn’t a word, it is a sentence. Unlike getting an injury, or breaking a bone, or catching an infection, for all of which there is treatment and cure, quickly over, something barely remembered a few years later, cancer is ongoing, unforgettable, a long sentence, a life sentence. And here it is:

Cancer is: having a series of increasingly unpleasant tests, waiting anxiously for the results, then watching as the oncologist’s face goes grim as he reads them; spending a day every couple of weeks hooked up to a bag of nasty chemicals by a sharp needle in your hand or arm; never feeling well for months at a time while treatment proceeds, and constantly feeling anxious that you will suddenly feel worse and have to be rushed off to hospital; spending your life moving from one doctor’s waiting room to the next, one testing facility to the next; suffering from a series of debilitating after-effects, conditions and diseases that your depleted immune system no longer copes with; worrying that every symptom you get, once dismissed as some minor ailment, might be the cancer returning; knowing that there are cancer cells always lurking somewhere in your body waiting to burst out and start a cellular revolution at any time; never really feeling well, and so reluctant to do once-normal activities; dealing with the concerns of family and friends.

Some sentence, eh?

Note – I have previously written about other aspects of my cancer experience here, here and here.

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4 comments on “Unforgettable

  1. Eric Snyder says:

    Hope your battle is a victorious one David!

    Don’t know if you’ve read “Emperor of All Maladies” or not but it is a fascinating read (although quite long) about the history of cancer, its treatment, successes, failures, political implications, and some interesting information about all the $’s involved.

    But, you know, life itself is a “sentence.” So far, it’s one for one with no guarantees of quantity. Quality is another issue though.


  2. Jan Dobson says:

    A quote that has long stayed with me, although I don’t remember the source. “People say cancer is a gift, I want to know where I can return it”
    It is shitty that you, who I know only through your entertaining tweets, my lovely sister in law or the strangers about whom I’m unaware should be touched by any serious illness.
    It is worse that either words, expectations or uncertainties should exacerbate the pain.
    NB The profanity used above is deliberate, given I do not generally use such language and its general understanding


  3. linsarmel says:

    It’s so true. I imagine depression and anxiety come along for the ride. Maybe friends and family just want to hear the cancer is gone and have difficulty staying in the constantly fearful spot.

    Being diagnosed with a ‘chronic’ disease or mental illness is similar to what you are saying without the ‘sympathy vote’ of cancer.

    Someone close to me has PhD and battling with bipolar II. I’ve been diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis (affects joints, muscles and organs) and am on low dose chemo (methetrexate) and two other drugs for rest of my life. Side effects, daily anti nausea meds etc etc so totally get what you are saying. Takes the edge off life a little. In having spine surgery courtesy of RA last year I had an MRI and learnt how to have a panic attack. Lovely. I hate that the bloody tests to make you better belong in the dark ages. I think in 10 years we will look back at cancer treatments and be appalled. Just had a mammogram this afternoon. I fully intend for it to come back pristine. RA is quite sufficient.


  4. Cancer is shit, and I seriously hate the mother*&^%er. And I also dislike when people choose to spin it into something that can be driven away by positive attitude (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent account of her own cancer experience and the annoyance she had to endure from all the “well-meaning” folks who smothered her with “look at it from the bright side”). I also recently read Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. There’s no embellishment there either, as one wouldn’t expect of him. It’s such a hard thing to face, and anyone who does that is a hero in my book.


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