By Gideon Schneider
September 19, 2008
I've got cancer. Here's what to say if we meet
A few days before my diagnosis, I had been sceptical about the accuracy of that advert that says one in three people in the UK will be "directly affected by cancer". Surely some advertising guru had sexed up the stats for dramatic effect.
However, an unexpected phone call from my GP hit me with the news that the lump on my neck was in fact Hodgkin's lymphoma, and not the harmless cyst I was hoping for. Well-meaning nurses as well as the specialist were quick to reassure me that if you had to choose a cancer, this immune-system-attacking variety was the best one in terms of prognosis. I was glad everyone approved of my choice.
Having been diagnosed, I was determined to be practical rather than emotional. I wasn't saddened, nor was I fearful; and after telling my family and some close friends, it transpired that my mortality was something others were concerned about, but not me.
My parents and grandmother took the news badly, distressed by the injustice of it all. After the initial tears had been shed, my mother did what all good Jewish mothers do and asked me to move back to the family home so she could feed me well. I declined, because retaining some independence while weakened during the impending treatment felt empowering.
While others, including my two older brothers and younger sister, were worrying about the diagnosis, my overriding thought was: "What am I supposed to do for the next half-a-year while I'm being treated?" I'm 26 years old and have an active work and social life which will both suffer now, so the thought of six months of daytime television with Fern Britton and Jeremy Kyle were enough to sicken me more than the vomit-inducing drugs I had to take. Exposure to radiation seemed preferable to a concentrated dose of GMTV.
People's reactions to your bad news are as varied as Ben and Jerry's ice-cream flavours. My preferred responses are the caramels - smooth, but rich in sincere concern. The reactions I dread are the Rocky Roads - those who panic and feel it their duty to let you know just how awful your situation is, for you and for them. Others are scared and can seem as cold as the ice collecting on the outside of the tub, but you try to see past that and realise that perhaps fear of the unknown is preventing them from accessing their soft centres.
Since the diagnosis, my mind has been racing with all the things I feel I have to manage, from personal finance during my long absence from my job at a media-sales company, to thinking up a flexible schedule of activities that in the coming months will prevent boredom killing me quicker than any cancer can. I also have had to take account of the warning that the treatment is likely to have me splattering what little content there was in my stomach, Jackson Pollock-like, over furniture and carpets.
And in light of how debilitating this was to be, various blogs, vlogs (video logs, for the uninitiated) and Wikipedia entries informed me that one of the most important things a person in treatment would need was the support of friends and family. That scared me. Were the people in my life going to be there for me - day in, day out - in the way that I would need them?
But Yara at the Chai Cancer Care counselling service said I should to put aside all these potential problems and focus on the issue at hand. I had to choose a hospital. Living in North-West London I had several options, all with glowing references. But in the end the decision came down to which would be easiest to get to and, more importantly, to get back from when potentially weakened by heavy doses of chemotherapy drugs and radiotherapy. That, and which one would offer a better selection of waiting-room magazines. University College Hospital (UCH) had Heat, Bella and a copy of Woman's Own from June 2006 - this, and their more convenient location, won them my custom.
I'm actually quite used to waiting. An initial misdiagnosis, and the seemingly compulsory three-week delay between each new test and its results, meant that my diagnosis took almost six months to achieve from when the lump on my neck was first noticed. I had to wait a week until I could see a specialist at UCH, and now I am waiting the couple of weeks until I can have the scans which will determine the seriousness of my cancer. There are four "stages", ranging from localised to widespread, and treatment will be decided on only when it is known which one I have. I'm hoping this is one test I score low on.
Whatever lies in store, I've decided to make the best of the situation. I will be blogging and vlogging, principally because it would give me something creative to do. For the very same reason, and not because I am some saint (contrary to my grandmother's belief), I will be attempting to raise money for charity, as I would rather channel people's sympathy through their pockets than through supportive words. I'm happily anticipating the loss of my remaining hair and am greedily adding up the potential saving on shampoo. I am also revelling in my loss of over 20 pounds in weight over the past few weeks and indulging my passion for chocolate in the gleeful knowledge I have a temporary get-out-of-fat card with the cancer eating away at me. But most of all, I will be in a position to test true friendship - as I have been told: "You'll know who your real mates are by the end of this."
One other weapon I have in my armoury is my somewhat dusty tie with the Jewish community. I am the product of Sinai School, Immanuel College, Hasmonean High School and yeshivah. I am also the product of subsequent rebellion against all of them. After three years studying at Cambridge, I settled in Israel, where I served as chief editor for the IDF's English-language website during the Gaza disengagement, only to return to London driven by a nagging desire to succeed as a songwriter.
The warm reactions of members of the community have reminded me what I love most about the culture I partly abandoned - that no matter how far a person strays from the fold, they know they will be supported in times of crisis.
He is raising money for Chai Cancer Care: see www.justgiving.com/gideonschneider