(c)Toby Kennedy, 2012.
It’s very easy to hide who you really are online. All that people know about you is what you choose to share, especially in a format like a blog. I’m generally a pretty open book – when I’m happy you know that I’m happy, when I’m sad you know why and when I started feeling that way; I’m a sharer, what can I say. But there is plenty that I don’t talk about because, well, it’s personal, and I like to try and keep my personal life as offline as possible. I’m not saying it’s how everybody should be, it’s just how I choose to be, because I like to protect those who are close to me.
Today I’m going to break that rule because today I’d like to talk about something which has nothing to do with food, is entirely personal and is still a taboo in society. Today I’d like to talk about cancer.
Cancer is one of those dreaded illnesses that we don’t discuss and yet almost everybody has been affected by, either directly or indirectly. Maybe we lost a family member or friend, maybe we know somebody who had the same, maybe we had our own cancer scare; the point is that cancer is all around us and so why is it so hard to talk about? Why is it the elephant in the room, crammed into the corner, staring at us and yet unacknowledged? I can only think of one reason: fear.
My Po-Po, my mother, my brother and I, waiting for the Star Ferry in Hong Kong.
When I was a child I lost two of my grandparents to cancer – my grandfather on my father’s side (my Yeah-Yeah) went first to bowel cancer, then my grandmother on my mother’s side (my Po-Po) died of lung cancer. On both of these occasions I was so young that the memories I have of my grandparents are hazy at best, though I very vividly remember certain occasions, like the time I shattered a glass on my foot after getting out of my Yeah-Yeah and Mah-Mah’s (maternal grandmother) swimming pool in Hong Kong because my hands were wet (my Yeah-Yeah told off the helper who had given me the glass because I was “only a small child and he should’ve given me a plastic cup,” then he picked up the glass from around my foot, bandaged my cut little toe and gave me a hug); or how his home office was filled with giant leather furniture and the chair he sat in behind his desk made him seem like a giant (a giant who was always happy to see us, even though we climbed all over him and knocked over all of the things on his desk). I remember the way my Po-Po always smelled of mothballs, the floaty shirts she wore, how soft her skin felt and how the veins on the backs of her hands seemed to glow blue under pale, delicate skin. I remember how they both wore huge glasses that covered half their faces and which, apparently, I was terrified of as a baby.
Every year we would walk down the ramp in the old Hong Kong airport and look for our family who would be lined up along the barriers to our left, waving, smiling, waiting to envelop us in hugs and bestow gifts upon us (usually strange electronic toys that always needed batteries, necessitating a midnight trip to the 7-11). One year my Yeah-Yeah was no longer in that line-up, and a few years later my Po-Po wasn’t either. Eventually the old airport was knocked down and replaced and now that journey down the ramp and into Hong Kong is something that, too, exists only in my memories.
But losing your grandparents when you can only remember snatched memories and moments seems like something that you get used to, and so once again cancer was swept under the carpet. Then when I was ten my father was diagnosed with throat cancer.
The Lee Family “kissy face”, featuring my father, myself and my Mah-Mah. My father can no longer pull this face.
It started as a persistent lump on the side of his neck. He would sit quietly in contemplation, two fingers against the lump, worry in his eyes but trying hard not to show it to us. A summer passed, we spent it in Spain, and when we returned to London and to school, my father finally had a biopsy, after which my brother and I were called into the living room to talk to him. This remains the only time I have ever seen my father cry – he broke down mid-sentence: it was cancer.
Without a word, my brother and I both hugged him fiercely and I could feel my father’s usually strong hands trembling on my back – I had seen my father happy, angry, disappointed and sad, but I had never seen him scared before. My brother chose to never speak about it – far more introverted than I, he would process things quietly in his own way (usually through sport) and so when he disappeared into his room to study, I went to mine to cry. I kept asking myself what it meant – was he going to die? Would he have an operation? What was cancer anyway?
Over the next few months my father underwent an operation to remove the tumour and a severe course of radiotherapy. The operation, though technically a success, left him with a huge scar that runs from his jaw to down and across his chest (one of my fondest and most cringe-worthy memories is the time that we were visiting my aunt in Sydney and, whilst strolling along Bondi Beach, my father opened his shirt and exclaimed loudly, “cor, the shark really took a good bite out of me, didn’t he?”), slurred speech, a broken jaw (from the radiotherapy) and issues with the muscles in his neck which make swallowing very difficult. I’ve watched my father literally diminish in size, from a mountain of a man to one a third of the size. A great orator, he now often struggles to be understood which is greatly frustrating for him. Though he has now been fifteen years “cancer-free”, it still affects him and every day brings a new challenge for him to overcome – it may physically no longer be in his body but you are never really “cancer-free” and this is something my father has had to deal with every day since his diagnosis.
The hardest part in all of this was watching my father become mortal. As a child your parents should be everything to you, they are god-like in that nothing ever seems to affect them. Fell over and cut your knee? Your parents make it better. Need advice? Talk to your parents. When I was a child I didn’t speak until quite late and at that point I came out with not a single word but a whole sentence, “who’s dead? Don’t worry, I fix it” – a phrase that my mother had said to me time and time again: don’t worry, I’ll fix it. My father’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment turned all of that on its head and made me realise, for the first time, that he was only human.
Since this time cancer has affected me directly relatively little. There have been friends’ parents who have “beaten” cancer, friends of friends who are in the process of fighting their own battles but on the other side of the world, and there have been sad stories of parents’ friends I used to know who, sadly, passed away; but nothing has really been so in-my-face as my father’s cancer.
Then, just before Christmas, one of my best friends – Sam – called me to tell me that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, my tongue turned to lead in my mouth and I sat stunned, ear glued to the phone; I literally had no idea what to say.
(c)Toby Kennedy, 2012.
Just a couple of weeks earlier we had been walking up the road to my house and she’d mentioned that she was going for a routine smear test the following day, that her results had been coming back as irregular and it was a real pain to have to keep going in every six months or so. I’d reassured her at the time that it was probably fine, that she shouldn’t worry about it, and then here she was, telling me she had cancer.
After she hung up I sat for a while on my bed and then, I admit, I cried a little. I cried for the sad news that I’d received, I cried for the cancer that had affected my father and I cried for the cancer that had taken away my grandparents before their time; then I wiped my face and made an action plan which consisted of driving Sam to the hospital for her appointment and… that was it. The rest was a complete blank.
As a friend, there is very little that I can do for Sam other than be there when she needs me to be, and, honestly, I would drop everything for her at a word. Over the past few months Sam has shown so much strength and resolve in tackling this. Of course she’s had her moments of doubt and fear, we all do, but the most important thing is that she has faced it head on and not let the fear overwhelm her.
Because she is so young (only a couple of years older than I) and because she is outrageously strong-willed (she was working two jobs just before Christmas and studying for her degree in photography, she is now thankfully only working the one job and studying, though I often reprimand her for letting herself be overworked at said job), I know that she can fight this, but the cancer is now at a stage where she needs to start a much more aggressive course of radiotherapy. We don’t know what the future holds but Sam has determined to make the most out of every day, to fight and to work towards her goals and, as her friend, I’m there to support her in any way possible.
One of these goals is to participate in one of the Race for Life events in July with a group of friends, and so, on July 14th, that is exactly what we’ll be doing.
Race for Life is an annual 5 or 10k run, held up and down the country, intended to raise money for Cancer Research UK. A women only event, pink is the colour of the day and you can participate any way you want to – walk, jog or run – just finish. Hundreds of women take part every year, running for themselves, for friends or family, and I’m proud to say that I will be right alongside Sam, even if we end up having to carry her ourselves!
You can sponsor us too – we’re looking to raise about £1,000 for Cancer Research UK but please give whatever you can. Here’s an idea of what your money will go towards:
£10 could buy 300 glass slides for studying cells and tumour samples in detail under the microscope.
£30 could buy around 250 plastic Petri dishes. They’re an essential resource for thousands of scientists who are working hard to understand cancer.
£54 could buy 22 thermometers (range -10°C to 110°C) – indispensable for many experiments that need to be performed at very precise temperatures.
£94 could cover the cost for one woman to take part in a clinical trial aiming to improve survival for post-menopausal women with early-stage breast cancer.
£123 could fund one cancer information nurse for a day. Our experienced cancer information nurses provide a confidential service for anyone with concerns about cancer.
£260 could buy a sophisticated microarray, a powerful piece of technology, helping scientists to scrutinise thousands of genes in a single experiment, and identify which are switched on in cancer.
£677 could cover the cost of one person taking part in a clinical trial testing chemotherapy before and after surgery, and the antibody drug Vectibix, to improve survival for bowel cancer patients.
£1,000 could cover around 22 day’s running expenses for an important lab project into a type of children’s cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. The study aims to identify molecules that are involved in driving tumour growth, and this could lead to improved treatments so that more children survive the disease in the future.
As you can see, sponsoring us and supporting Cancer Research UK could be life-saving and eventually, one day, may even go towards finding a cure. We live in hope, do we not?
Sponsor us by visiting our Race For Life sponsorship page – we’ll be sure to take lots of photos on the day and I promise that your money will be going towards a great cause. And that’s not all! If you are female, based in London, free on the 14th July and would like to join us, please get in contact – we would love to have you run with us!
I won’t let cancer be the elephant in the room any more – will you? Thank you for reading this.
Until next time, peace and love,