“I just found out I have testicular cancer. So, I warn you, I may use the phrase ‘my balls’ quite a lot in this phone call.”
“How is that different from any other phone call with you?”
My brother always knows what to say. Which is comforting (or, in this case, pleasantly amusing) when you’re not sure to be more afraid of death or of being the ultimate buzzkill.
I was told I had testicular cancer last week. Tomorrow I am scheduled to have a surgery with possibly the most ludicrous name imaginable: an orchidectomy. Because that’s what’s happening. A beautiful and rare flower is being removed. Not something that didn’t start off pretty and has grown to the size and appearance of a wrinkly space-hopper.
I’m making jokes because I am terrified. I’m scared of so many things, I can hardly catalogue them all. And I’m also aware that better writers than me have written about what it’s like to live (and die) with cancer. I’m a noob (which sounds like it should have something to do with testicles but just means newbie to all this) and feel like a fraud because I’m at the beginning of a journey that has been so eloquently documented before.
I also realised quite early on (when I was leaving the hospital car park, feeling utterly hollow with terror and hopelessness) that having cancer does not make you deep or wise.
I am still flawed, it turns out, even though I have a life-threatening illness. I want my money back.
I also want to tell you what has helped me this week. Just because maybe one day you’ll have a friend who has to join the ‘Hitler club’ (back in the day, a funny moustache would do it. Not so, now, apparently.) These things have made a really unpleasant week better (in no particular order):
1. Being able to make jokes
Honestly, a lot of the time I don’t find anything funny. Nothing. But some situations provide so much natural comedy they make you almost forget you may be making your wife a widow soon. Like having to go into a booth at a fertility clinic with the aim of freezing some of your little soldiers in a test tube (in case future chemo renders them harmless). I didn’t enter shouting “This is what we trained for!” and I didn’t emerge with a cry of “My seed is strong!” But I did say to the nurse that nothing got me in the mood more than thinking about cancer. She sort of laughed.
2. Friends, people, messages
It’s so obvious, but it means so much. Just texts or mails or Facebook messages from people have made me calmer. From people I don’t know well. People I haven’t spoken to in ages. People who I’ve fought with. People who genuinely cannot think of what to say. People promising to pray (whether they are usually praying people or not). People who make a big deal about it and people who make life seem normal. People have spent time with me, offered help, bought me healing remedies, shown they care. People, when you get down to it, are nice.
3. The idea that God loves me
Yes, yes, as a Christian this should be obvious. It’s hard to process though. I have less faith than when I was young. I understand less how prayer works. This has sort of thrown my theology of healing into a spin. I know God loves me. But that doesn’t mean this won’t get much, much worse. It doesn’t mean I won’t die tomorrow. So I know God loves me. But I know He is God. And optimism at that perspective can honestly feel a lot like no optimism at all. But I know He loves me. He surely loves me.
4. My wife
I cannot imagine how anyone does this without my specific wife, so I really can’t imagine doing it alone. This is what the ‘sickness and health’ part of marriage is about. It sucks. But may be the greatest thing human relationships have ever come up with. Having a one-flesh partner in this is both a source of inexpressible comfort and the deepest of my fears. For all the same reasons. Complicated.
5. The NHS
“This is the best country in the world to get that diagnosis if you’re not a millionaire,” one of my friends told me. He’s right. I’ve been seen, scanned, examined, counselled and will be operated on soon, and the fact I have no money to pay for it has made no difference at all. Hospitals are terrifying, much in the NHS may need to be tweaked or fixed, but from where I’m sitting, it is one of the things that makes Britain great.
All that said, I’m still terrified. Tonight, my wife and I are making out our wills. Which, I’m sure, will make us feel really prepared as opposed to, say, blind, deaf and dumb with panic.
But people are praying for us. A friend bought me a ‘get well’ gift of a bag of nuts today and people keep on apologising for saying “balls”. So things really can’t be all that bad.