Lisa was a freshly married 28 year old when she discovered that her nasty lump was an invasive breast cancer. She died in 2013, aged 33.
The film was broadcast on 3rd May. If you haven’t seen it, you may still be able to catch it on iPlayer. It’s completely brilliant.
There is a surreal moment when Lisa and her husband sit in a counsellor’s office, trying to get their heads around the news that the cancer has come back. No more chance of a cure.
“There is a book,” the counsellor says soothingly, producing a copy out of her cupboard. “I think you’ll both benefit from reading it.”
Lisa and her husband stare at it in horror.
“What’s wrong? What have I said?” the counsellor wants to know.
“I wrote it,” Lisa finally offers.
Ah. Oh dear.
I’ve read that book.
It was also recommended to me at the hospital, before I had my chemotherapy.
“You must read it,” my breast care nurse had said. “It’s brilliant. The way she copes with it all. Oh, and they are making it into a film. The BBC came to talk to me.”
Lisa had been one of her patients. I duly started the book. I was entertained, but it was grim too, all those horrid bits about chemo. Still, it would be good to see how she got through it.
I’ve blogged about this before. My horror when I (like that counsellor in the film) found out that Lisa’s story didn’t end when the book ended, with the all clear. It ended in a funeral.
It took me until after I’ve got through all my treatments before I could read other cancer patients’ blogs and books again.
The book made me think how differently we all cope with having breast cancer.
Lisa fumed her way through treatment: exactly right for her, but not something I would (or even could) do. It struck me again when I read other cancer patients’ books. How the person we are defines the way we cope with our cancer. (After my treatment, I read three such books in a week: John Diamond, Kate Granger, Philip Gould… it seems that you have a better chance of getting published if the cancer is killing you).
It annoys me when people (especially nurses) say things like She coped with it so wonderfully (with regards to Lisa) or even It’s brilliant, the way you cope with it (with regards to me).
The truth is, you cope with your cancer the only way you can. If that is by hiding under the duvet for a year, crying all over the shop or moaning to everyone in sight, so be it. When it comes to ghastly life events like this, as far as I’m concerned, you can be as selfish as you like, and others will just have to put up with it.
So Lisa swears her way through it all, defying cancer’s hold on appearances by buying wigs that cost more than £1000 and having a beautiful breast reconstruction. If anyone understands that my choice to keep my flat side is exactly the right one, just watch that film and you will see that Lisa’s choice to keep her cleavage is also exactly right.
So, reading Lisa’s book I was struck by our differences.
But watching the film, I was struck by the similarities.
Not just in the way we both used blogging as a coping mechanism. There were so many moments when I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, oh god yes, I remember that.
The huge arrow they draw on your breast to make sure they don’t chop off the healthy one.
The things people say to you (“My cat died of that” – yes, I’ve heard that one too).
The annoying way in which some people insist that cancer is a gift. Yes, I know there is beauty to be found everywhere, but I would never, never, never insist that a cancer patient should look for it. Here's a lovely present! Happy birthday! As Lisa’s friend despairs, “No-one ever says that a vaginal prolapse is a gift.”
Lisa wanted to re-dress the balance, and that’s why she wrote her blog and her book. Tell the world what it’s really like to have cancer. And yet, there was a moment in the film that is not in the book (they must have got that from talking to the family afterwards), and for me, this was the biggest tear-jerker. Because it made me see more clearly than ever that however much you try to tell the world how it really is, the real horror of cancer is seen only by your family. Not even by the hospital staff: just by your family.
To the outside world, and probably even to her blog readers, Lisa is defiant, gobby, bouncy – yes, she writes about being depressed and about not recognising herself when she really cannot be positive, but still, there she is. At her brother’s wedding, looking spectacular, right at the end of her chemotherapy.
By huge effort and determination. She had her eye on that prize all along. “If only I can make it to my brother’s wedding.”
I think back to my determination to go and chair a conference at the end of my chemo. (Honestly, couldn’t I have chosen something better? But there were no weddings on my calendar.) So there I was, looking good (so people told me) despite having struggled through four months of relentless chemo. And like Lisa, I thought it was just wonderful wonderful wonderful that for once, Lord Cancer wasn’t the centre of attention and the sole topic of people’s conversations with me.
“I don’t know how you do it” - There was plenty of that.
But then there is Lisa, lying in the bath, looking desperately tired.
She calls her husband in tears. He rushes in, breaking open the locked door, “What is it?”
“I can’t get out,” she weeps.
Well, that had me in tatters. The husband lifts her out of the bath, this weak woman who is nothing, nothing like the person she really is.
I think this is why I really didn’t want people to come and see me at home during my treatment, because such weakness and vulnerability is just too difficult to share. I hated inflicting it on even my nearest friends. You try and sit up for half an hour, making dinner table conversation, but within minutes your head drops onto your arms because you simply cannot hold it up. And before pudding arrives, you just have to sign off and crawl back upstairs on your hands and knees.
You cannot really blog about that. Who would want to read this? you wonder. Plus, by the time you have enough energy to do the writing, you are able to put an entertaining spin on it, softening the blow for your readers.
I was devastated by Lisa’s Bath Moment, because I recognised her despair at the fact that her husband had turned into a carer. (Her husband, of course, didn’t see it that way. For him, being a carer was an integral part of being a lover. But try telling that to a needy cancer patient who has lost all her strength and all sense of control.)
My personal Bath Moment wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it was certainly memorable. I call it my Stir Fry Moment.
The Stir Fry Moment
Exhausted by chemotherapy. Determined not to rely on my family for absolutely everything. Surely, surely I could cook my own stir fry? Empty a packet of chopped vegetables, empty a ready-boiled packet of noodles, throw in some sauce. I was too tired to stand up, but I had put a stool by the stove, so what could go wrong?
Lifting the spatula and stirring, that’s what could go wrong. I simply didn’t have the strength to stir all these ingredients together. I tried and tried again, but it was no use. The children were at school (otherwise I would have called on them and called it Parenting – look, I’m teaching my child how to cook). But my husband was at his desk upstairs. I hated calling him, yet again, for help. Of course he didn’t mind. But I did. I laughed about it (Hahaha, look at me, I can’t even stir my own stir fry) but what I really thought was, What on earth has become of me??!!
I still get frustrated by my ongoing lack of energy.
Yesterday I came home from work early, as the simple effort of cycling into the office and sitting on a chair for six hours all but floored me – and that’s four months after the end of treatment! Will it never end? I'm taking a day off today, trying to gather strength for tomorrow's trip to Copenhagen (yet another conference; this time I'll be gone for four days).
But then, after a bit of a lie-down, I was back at that stove, cooking supper not just for myself but for three hungry school children. Stop whinging! I told myself. At least you can Stir Your Fry.
During my Stir Fry Moment, it was hard to believe that such family cooking could ever happen again.
So when people ask me how I am, I smile at them and I say I’m really well! I can do everything again! I don’t tell them (too much) about my frustration that I still need so much rest. I don’t tell them that I still don’t quite recognise myself.
At least I don't expect that to happen to me. I truly don't. And for that, I am grateful.