Geeks Vs Loneliness: Attack of the Tumours

In which Sandy talks about his cancer diagnosis and treatment, and gives advice on supporting friends with a devastating diagnosis

Hello and welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our calm corner of the geek web where we gather to talk all things mental and physical health related. This week we welcome Sandy Chadwin who gives a funny and honest appraisal of his cancer treatment, and what not to do if someone you know is going through a similar experience.

It was when I was waiting to hear whether the growth in my throat was malign that the enormity of the situation hit:

I might never know who the next Doctor Who will be.

This was soon followed by the second realisation:

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Or the next James Bond.

This, I thought to myself, is serious.

Serious and fatal illnesses or conditions are quite popular in SFF culture. Superman came down with a blood fever which was only cured by the intervention of Swamp Thing – there’s no point in glaring at me, Alan Moore wrote that story, ‘The Jungle Line’. In the most recent Star Trek: Discovery series, Lieutenant Saru is revealed to suffer from a congenital fatal condition which he deals with bravely and touchingly until he is cured by being a leading character (and Alex Kurtman not being George RR Martin).

In 2016 it was my turn and the question arose – who was my showrunner? If it was GRRM, I was in trouble.

It was malign and so I entered the strange world of cancer treatment. And the first thing I want to say, the most important thing to pass on – it’s not so bad. The other shoe has dropped. The worst has happened and there’s not a lot you can do about it, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the attention.

It helped that I had prepared myself for this. Six months previously I had noticed a lump under my jawbone. I then proceeded to do what just about everyone does when they find a lump – I sat on it. Metaphorically speaking. But I did think the worst. I would lie awake and plan my funeral – a bagpipe lament, the Geordie folk song ‘The Keel Row’, various readings, since you ask. It also helped that a close friend and a member of my family had already been through the treatment and I was able to draw upon their bravery and stoicism as an inspiration.

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So if you are diagnosed, and I hope you’re not, because it’s nothing if not inconvenient, then hearken unto the great and sage advice of Douglas Adams and Don’t Panic.

Ah, but what to do if your friend gets cancer? Well here are few pointers for you.

• Avoid the Cancer Smug and Cancer Porn traps. The former is people who tell you that they never got and will never get the condition because, oh I don’t know, they bathe in chihuahua urine every third Wednesday. The latter do things like gleefully tell you how awful your treatment is going to be and how you are going to suffer. Someone I thought I knew well took a ghoulish delight in telling me all about suppurated gums and weeping wounds bought on by radiotherapy. This, I have to tell you, was not helpful.

• Try and avoid describing your friend as ‘fighting’ the cancer. As someone once put it, they are not fighting the cancer, the doctors and nurses are. They are merely the battlefield.

• Do come and visit in hospital. You don’t have to stay long, in fact you often shouldn’t. The worst experience I had on the ward was when a visitor to the man in the opposite bed felt obliged to stay the whole two hours and drove us all mad by running out of conversation after about twenty minutes and then spending the rest of time looking out of the window and idly considering the possibility of rain and the implications for his allotment.

• If, like me, your friend lives alone, offer practical help. Run errands, clean their flat before their discharge, do their laundry. These were all things done for me which I was intensely grateful for.

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• Try not to be terrified of your friend. Cancer is not contagious and refusing to contemplate or think about it is not a viable way of avoiding it. I know of someone whose neighbour would scream and run away every time they saw him and I had a friend who hasn’t spoken to me since she found out. I know she worries and solicitously asks mutual friends about my well being. The reason I know this is that I was standing next to her at the time.

• Be aware that radio- and chemotherapy and their aftermath are physically exhausting and a touch debilitating. After all, the patient is being poisoned for five hours every week and spends six weeks mildly radioactive. Actually, I rather enjoyed the radiotherapy. It was very like being in a ‘60s Bond film. You are led into a very SF type chamber with a huge metal door and strapped down onto a table. This is so that the energy only hits the exact spot of the cancer, but it is still a tad disconcerting, especially when, having been secured, everyone else then leaves the room and the huge metal door swings silently shut. As it was my neck that was being treated, my head was enclosed in a plastic mesh moulded to my face and held fast in place so I never did actually see what actually happened. But I like to think that a spidery robotic arm came down from the ceiling and shot a ray of – oh, let’s say blue – light at me. Disappointingly there was no high-pitched whine.

• Don’t ask what caused the cancer. Odds on, no-one knows and it can sound as if you are blaming your friend for getting ill. Other than that, be yourself, be patient and in the words of Capaldi’s Doctor, be kind.

• Oh, and one final thing. You know that TV cliché of the ditsy teenager who shows appreciation of an older taller man by throwing her arms around his neck and hauling herself off the ground with a cry of ‘Oh I do so love you Daddy/Uncle/Pod Master’. You know that one? Well, don’t do that to someone who had major neck surgery four days earlier.

Trust me on this.

As always, thanks for reading.

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