This week marks three years since cancer entered our lives. Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of August 2012, before getting the all clear in Easter 2013 and being declared terminal in February 2014.
This time in 2012, I was embarking on a gap year, one brother was about to start his A-Levels and the other was starting year eight. In 2013, we were on a family holiday in France, walking up lots of mountains, attempting to mountain bike down some others, and eating far too many baguettes afterwards. 2014 came, and Mum’s condition went up and down a bit, but we still managed to get away for a few days and head to the Dales for some beautiful walks.
This weekend, we were going to spend the day as a family, on the coast or at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but it ended up not being possible. Mum takes a while to wake up in the morning, so we wouldn’t have been able to leave until 2/3pm. Then it turned out to be super windy, and Mum wasn’t feeling the best she’d ever felt, and we couldn’t think of anywhere accessible to go that wouldn’t have a small hurricane nearby, so we ended up just staying in. We had a pleasant enough day (I baked enough to sink a small ship!), but it doesn’t hide how dramatically different our lives are now compared to how they used to be.
I was feeling pretty rubbish on Sunday night – overtired, and becoming increasingly angry at the whole existence of cancer, so I figured I needed to try to make my frustration productive in some way. I typed ‘terminal cancer’ into a site a lot of young people use to rant, get inspiration, and generally support each other through anything and everything going on in life.
Up came pages and pages of GIFs, screenshots and quotes from The Fault in Our Stars, broken up with the occasional bit from My Sister’s Keeper and Before I Die. Scattered amongst these snippets of carefully constructed Hollywood drama were the writings and cries for help from other young people who are attempting to come to terms with losing a loved one to this horrible, horrible disease, in real life.
It was then that something I’ve always thought on some level really hit me. I am absolutely sick of the glamourisation of cancer. The ‘Hollywoodification’ of terminal illness. The warm filter put on dying.
When people are trying to reach out for help, and the only experience their friends have of cancer is a watery-eyed, highly made-up Hazel-Grace (without any jaundice, oedema, peripheral neuropathy, bags under her eyes, weightloss, or anything else that might come with cancer – if it weren’t for her oxygen tank, she’d look completely healthy), staring into the beautiful eyes of the ‘it’s a metaphor’ Augustus Waters (who by the way, also has none of those symptoms) it’s not helpful. How is anyone supposed to come to terms with what they’re going through when this is the picture of cancer put before them?
I picked TFIOS out because it’s pretty prominent at the moment, but there are hundreds of cancer stories out there. Cancer is an easy illness to work with when scriptwriting; most people have heard of it, giving people a bald head can easily symbolise it, and the stages of cancer can easily be made to mimic the traditional three act structure of Western storytelling.
I have nothing against John Green or any other writer who writes about cancer, either in books, in films, or via some other medium; I would just prefer it if people didn’t treat the characters in these stories as if they were real people. I’d love it if people who wanted to know the realities of cancer read real accounts of living with cancer, either written by sufferers or those close to them, and if we could dispel these ideas that cancer is all bald heads, cake, trips abroad, and profound moments.
Ideally, cancer would disappear from all our lives forever, but sadly we don’t live in an ideal world. I hope that by writing about our experience of cancer, I can help people to gain a better understanding of terminal illness, and how it affects those involved, without resorting to Hollywood’s cotton-candy version of dying.