I’ve just watched The C Word, the dramatisation of Lisa Lynch’s blog, Alrighttit and subsequent book which she wrote about her fight with cancer. Sheridan Smith expertly and touchingly plays the recently married magazine editor who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the desperately young age of 28 and died of its secondary disease five years later. For two years following her original treatment Lisa hoped she was clear of cancer and her life was well and truly back on track.
Then came the line, ‘And then the music stopped,’ which has stayed with me all week.
Did you watch it?
I was glad I was sitting in the garden, huddled around the fire pit, when it was first aired as I hadn’t decided if I should watch it. I wasn’t sure how much the drama could teach me about the experience of breast cancer but knew its potential for sending me into a big dark hole. I’m very protective about what I watch and read. You may know of my aversion to stats, particularly any that touch on that P word: prognosis. It’s a word I’ve come to hate, tend to leave it out in sentences and pull a face in its place. Fear of stumbling across a rogue stat is a great incentive to keep me away from Planet Google Cancer and when I’m sent links on breakthroughs and innovative therapies, appreciated as they are, I insist my husband trawls through them for danger zones before I read.
Remember Brookside, TFI Friday, Arctic Role, those frozen mousses in plastic pots, (one of) The Eclipse(s), Millennium Eve, Wham! Blind Date, When Harry Met Sally, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (who is EXACTLY the same age as me, even down to the ¾), Bridget Jones Diary and Le Tour coming to Harrogate? There are certain things in our life time which we just have to see, feel, watch or listen to if we want to be fully paid up persons to our generation.
I wondered if The C Word should be added to this list.
I’ll share a secret with you. I was curious that nobody had asked me if I’d watched it. It made me suspicious. I wondered if people thought that perhaps I shouldn’t. Or perhaps I might have watched it and been so traumatised that it shouldn’t be discussed lest I be propelled down into that dark hole I mentioned. Or perhaps they’d been traumatised themselves. Alas, I am not the only one whose life has been touched by cancer. Whatever the reason, the radio silence was quite a pull towards Catch Up TV.
My husband is away and I knew he wouldn’t choose to watch it. In real life he is calm. He isn’t, ‘can be calm,’ or, ‘is quite calm,’ he just IS calm, from his toe nails to the hair on his head. When it comes to TV, he is a wimp. Holby City? Too much blood. Call The Midwife? Why would you want to watch someone scream? The C Word? Why would you want to make yourself cry?
It was Saturday night and the eldest child was doing eleventh hour replacement final pieces for her GCSE Art practical after her original sculpture had snapped only days before its deadline. While I let out a gasp which rocked the house opposite on sight of the photos of the sculpture in too many pieces to count, said daughter, who is her father just a foot smaller and less hairy, simply shrugged and asked how fast we could get hold of a hardboard mask as she’d had an idea. The other daughter was applying false tan and distracting her GCSE taking sister into making Dubsmash clips. Do you know about Dubsmash? It’s an App. No App – ever – will make me laugh more than seeing my children performing Dubsmash videos. If you’ve watched a programme which has sent you down a dark hole, I promise you Dubsmash is your best chance of clambering back out.
So, the family absent from the living room, I thought I could sneak a peek without anyone else needing to know.
The problem is that I can’t work the television. I never need to switch it on, you see. Like wine and chocolate, TV is a social thing for me, not something I ever do on my own. So I had to ask the Dubsmasher to load The C Word for me. And thus my cover was rather unglamorously blown but she wrinkled her nose when she saw the title and slunk back to the Dubsmashing and false tanning on the bath room floor, which fortuitously for her requirements (and my carpet), is one of the few places in our house where you can snatch a whiff of Wi-Fi.
Now I was committed.
The C Word didn’t have the effect I thought it would. Yes I cried, only perhaps for 90% of it, though, and they weren’t particularly tears for me. The operations and treatments were all too familiar, as were the feelings and reactions so frankly and eloquently portrayed, but I wouldn’t say that The C Word brought them all back because they’re all still very front of mind. This isn’t in a wholly negative way, but in a, phew - that was the year that was and hey, this life without treatments lark is much more fun - kind of way. Although I would admit that the trials of the side effects of Tamoxifen also contrive to keep the experience fairly current.
But I did weep for Lisa when she lost her hair. I had forgotten the raw emotion of seeing your identity flushed down the toilet. I’m sure it seems a strange thing to be upset about. Surely it’s the least of your worries, right? Wrong! I have a theory. The implications for you and your loved ones of a cancer diagnosis are too big to taste whole so you have to tackle that enormous universe of uncertainty one atom at a time. Yet your hair is part of a world you do know and understand and however much you try to be grown up about it, it’s way too big a part of your pre-cancer life for you to lose without a great aching lament. It’s a deeply sub-conscious thing but I felt that I couldn’t let my self cry about cancer itself. I rarely have which is quite staggering as I’m a bit of a cry baby really. But I feared taking the crust away from the cancer universe might mean I couldn’t fit it back on again. Unleash the lava from a volcano and it may never stop flowing. Underneath the despair at holding my hair loose in my hands, I think I knew that my grief for my hair would eventually stop. I think Lisa’s writing about this - candid and brutal but also wickedly funny - and Sheridan’s portrayal of her vulnerability during this and other stages of treatment captured this brilliantly.
The rest of the tears were for the touching moments with family and friends and in particular, with Pete, Lisa’s husband. His caring manner and gentle air reminded me of my husband. Yes, I had cancer and yes, I had to undergo more than my fair share of operations and treatments but I was being looked after and showered with cards and gifts and love and help. My husband, like all those closest to someone with a serious illness or disability, was having to look after me, our children, hold down his job and keep his own sanity, as well as handle his own emotions, pretty much single handed. My husband, together with my family and friends, are the principal reason why I managed to keep smiling through cancer. People say you are ‘strong’ and ‘brave’ but if you’re lucky, it’s the people around you who really give you strength and courage. And that is what made me cry the most when watching the drama.
The dark hole? I thought The C Word might unsettle me for a few hours and then I’d get back on with living. But actually, it had the opposite effect. I found it empowering. The similarities between my and Lisa’s lives weren’t lost on me: young (-ish in my case), the writing, the blog, the book, even the dressing smart for chemo – chemo power dressing I used to call it. She was even a Virgo! (That one’s for my Mum).
Much as I ache for Lisa and her family, I’d like the similarities to stop there.
There was nothing Lisa could do when secondaries were silently forming. There’s nothing I could do either but I can give it my best shot to prevent cancer in the ‘other one’ or indeed, any other cancer forming. The C Word was a reminder of my resolve to follow a lifestyle which does its absolute best to repel any further invasion of cancer. As Lisa says, we can’t control it, but I can do my best to make my body a fortress of steel against it.
Yes, I sleep much more than I used to but it’s easy to let it slide. I mustn’t.
My work/ life balance slips into the red zone frequently. I have to address this.
I’m very conscious of how much I drink but I’m aware that summer’s coming and I can’t pretend that the image of prosecco corks popping in the dusk of a balmy British summer’s evening, a little more often than my seven units a week maximum would allow, isn’t appealing. But it isn’t worth it to me. I’d love scientists to decide that alcohol would have no ill effect on my health but they won’t so I need to get over myself.
And then there’s the phone. It’s a stress. And I’d been switching it off at 9pm. Recently, it has crept back into my evenings. I’ve resolved to turn it off again.
And it was a reminder to be bold, proud and alive! Last week I went to the hairdresser and allowed myself to be talked out of having my short hair bleached blonde because it would be too high maintenance. My hairdresser is right of course. But I’d resolved to be bold while my hair grew back into a style which was ‘more me’ and so tomorrow I’m going back to the hairdresser’s. Hang the cost, forget the time and most of all, sod the commitment. Life, as they say, is too short.
Lisa’s story is tragic. People dying of cancer is tragic. People dying before their parents is particularly tragic. But the sad truth is that sometimes illness will win. In the meantime, we should live our lives positively, pack them with experiences we’d choose while we can, seize the bright side rather than wallowing in regrets and treat our body with respect so that we give ourselves the best chance of longevity and quality of life. You know, I’ve always striven to do this and can’t really attribute it to Lisa’s story. But The C Word was a timely top-up reminder.
RIP Lisa Lynch and all those who have died too young.