Saturday, 30 April 2016

What cancer has taught me (with jokes)

My mother-in-law's raspberry cupcakes
Ever the student, I have learnt a lot from this (fingers crossed) minor encounter with cancer.

It's to do with how I cope best – through silence, telling almost no one, yoga, exercise, practicality, being Dutch about the whole thing, cutting out any white noise that derails me, being more ruthlessly focused than I normally let people know I am, looking at the positive and the concrete over the chimerical and the negative.

And jokes.

The negative is, of course, there, I don't deny it, lurking about in an anti-matterish sort of way, but, in my life, I have welcomed in far too much of that, felt I had to be negativity's caretaker. And that is linked to allowing myself to be bullied, and miserable. I'll take Newtonian over Quantum mechanics for the time being. The sub-molecular level will have to wait.

What I've learnt is… that a well-timed joke has a therapeutic power as great as a surgeon's blade.

I'll never not be my intense self, but sending myself (and a few others) up is probably more entertaining than my long screeds of introspection and self-analysis. 

Sorry about those, and thank you for putting up with them. Here's another one.

Transmuting Wendy-the-Bully into comedy gold for cancer is one of the best jokes I have ever told (still fundraising, we're currently at £3100+, thank you to every one of you, my heartfelt thanks, here's the link...) – and I now recall that Wendy and I met because of another of my Hilarious Jokes.

That poor woman loathed me from the very first time we met (I feel her pain), which was long before I was at Cambridge as a lecturer. I was a post-doc British Academy research fellow at Queen Mary College London, and was an examiner on a paper, I believe on Proust. She was the external examiner.

In the examiners' meeting, I deliberately cracked a joke, because we were all tired and tense and nervous. Wish I could remember what flip remark I made – apparently it was a killer.

Everyone fell about laughing, and the mood lightened. Except Wendy. She was not slain by my wit. She gave me a sour lemon look that was intended to kill me on the spot. It puzzled me, but it did its job. I shut up. I think, for Wendy, my cracking a joke constituted a Direct Attack on the Establishment, the Examination Process, Her Authority. All that sailed in her and what she stood for would necessarily be corroded and ruined by my Younger Woman's levity. How dare I

Actually, I wasn't that young. I must have been 30 or so at the time, I wasn't exactly an upstart. Academic rates of promotion will have you pretty much in your grave before you earn a salary comparable to your qualifications. I think it's because part of the kit is growing a grey beard, and I could only manage blue stockings at the time. That's all changed.

I knew, from sourlemongate onwards, I would have problems if I ever encountered her again. Sure enough, at every encounter we ever had in Cambridge, she went out of her way to make things really, really hard for me. I mean, to the point where it was actually funny, looked at from a certain angle, until she finally seemed to have the last laugh, and I resigned. I can only hope she chuckled into her All-Bran that day, and danced about her kitchen. Free! Free of the radical!

That wasn't the problem, though (well, it was quite a big problem, because I didn't have a job anymore. But I digress).

The problem was that I then carried her around, like a tiny Wendy-me, lurking in my body, for years and years afterwards, because I already believed the things she thought about me. I was, indeed, superficial, lazy, a slacker, pretentious, self-seeking, fat, unfashionable, unkind, ugly, stupid, aggressive and competitive (NOTE: some of that stuff is true, but I'm not going to tell you which bits).

Why do you think the blonde girl felt she needed a phd in the first place?

A phd on self-justification?

It was easy for Wendy to prey on me – I welcomed her in. For an intelligent woman, that was a remarkably dumb blonde thing to do.


This week I took chicken soup from Platters on the Finchley Road to a friend, also post-op. I was given Platters' chicken soup by a wonderful friend a fortnight ago, and now understand that it is the Jewish equivalent of Asterix's magic potion. 

My friend and I talked and laughed (not too hard, we didn't want to bust her stitches). Then she looked me in the eye and said, "You know, what got me through was that I have this… voice I've made up in my head; it's partly my mother's voice, and partly mine, and I would talk to myself, going through… you know… and comfort myself… You must think I sound mad…". I was staring at her, transfixed. 

I walked through a door this week, and closed it behind me. I understood, once and for all, this week, that the only thing I failed at when I was a child and adolescent was to absorb my mother's soothing, comforting voice. It was no one's fault. I blame no one for it. She did the best she possibly could. It's just what happened. I went into adult life, not so much with a thin skin, as without a way to comfort myself. I hadn't learnt to love myself unconditionally.

It has simply taken me until now, nearly thirteen years into motherhood, and with the help of so many others, to grow my own 'inner mother', who can take care of me when times are tough, and help me to keep the Motherload safely at bay, and allow me to look after others without hurting myself.

I was often called, hilariously, an 'eternal student' when doing my phd, and later, when living in a college set as a lecturer. When I was finishing my doctorate, I remember reeling down the road in North Oxford, with a voice in my head saying over and over, "The answer's love, now what's the question?". I think I apologised to a lamp post for bumping into it. 

I've finally reached the punchline to the joke. Who loves ya, baby? 

Sunday, 17 April 2016

I've called my cancer Wendy

Pre-op Dutch Courage

So Motherload fans, I've been quite absent from this blog for a while, and I've got an excuse.

On Thursday I had surgery to excise some very early breast cancer.

Now, this won't be a long post, because I'm still post-op and a bit tired.

But I wanted to pass on a few things that have interested me on this journey.

1. I found my lump on 22 February 2016. This also happened to be the second anniversary of the death of a wonderful friend, Jane. She was the bravest woman I have ever met. She died of ovarian cancer. We met, the day after her diagnosis, when my little girl went round to play with her little girl. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. What is the etiquette for a playdate chat about ovarian cancer with a mum you've never met before? We became firm friends. We learnt mindfulness together during six sun-filled weeks in her kitchen, as her cat strolled in and moved around us, happy and curious. Another friend I'd made through my daughter's school did the course with us, and it was run by yet another friend, who came from another of my many lives. My worlds were brought together in Jane's kitchen in the quiet and the birdsong.

2. I found the lump about two weeks after starting a new job, as a writer in residence for a divorce law firm, Vardags. I was so nervous about starting a job in the City, that I took to making the journey in a pair of pink trainers, then changing into a pair of high-heeled Shoes of Prey beauties, to pretend I was a kickass writer. What I was, was a tiny, frightened, mess of a writer.

3. I had been offered an amazing opportunity to take on some change management work for a company, just prior to starting at Vardags – I'd asked to defer it because of no. 4 below, but I was going to have to get going on it imminently. I quailed at the prospect of fitting it in.

4. I had, furthermore, issued a Facebook promise, like an idiot, that I would complete the second draft of Motherload by the end of February. Couldn't stand down. Not after six years.

5. Oh, and there was still the little matter of my tutoring eight hours a week after school, being a school governor, doing university admissions work…

6. And being a mother.

Keeping these six things in play, around supermarket trips, parkruns and yoga, turned into the framework that got me through the subsequent two months. That, and the ruthlessly and insistently appointed two-woman support group of Viking Sisters, who used Whatsapp to keep me off the ceiling, breathing, moving forward. Two months of going to the breast clinic for mammogram and biopsy, then having a second (eye-watering) biopsy, then being told by phone that there was, in fact, a minute carcinoma, but having to wait for the official confirmation, because there was a second area in doubt. There was the small matter of going on holiday with my extended family at Easter, and not being able to tell them. There was the delightful coincidence of my 48th birthday, three days ahead of the surgery.

To my immense surprise, deciding to tell no one, not even my mum (apart from my husband and my corralled Viking Sisters, who didn't have a choice in the matter), turned out to be the right move. I longed to scream the news from the rooftops, in the hope this would somehow save me from actually having cancer, but at the same time, I knew that I had to keep my head down, shuffling on, bracketing, parking, compartmentalising, prioritising. And to my second immense surprise, doing this gave me a huge boost of power and motivation.

Being, as I am, a recovering Proustian, and therefore given to telling everyone absolutely everything that happens to me, in laborious detail, using the imperfect tense, not telling people about the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me was weird. I had a secret.

Twelve years ago, when I was – as I never tire of telling people – kicked out of Cambridge for having a baby and a father dying of dementia, my head of department worked as hard and ruthlessly to push me to resign, as I worked from February to April of this year, keeping my secret.

She made damn sure that when I went to her, requesting flexible or part-time working post-birth, she left no stone unturned in humiliating me, trying to invade my personal life, and ultimately in just refusing my request. I could have done all my teaching in the time available as a part-time lecturer, and would have done it, didn't want to let my students down. Oh, she was thorough. She'd spent three years getting me ready for the final push, undermining me and provoking me. I mean, she was really very good at bullying. It's an art form.

As I went on to realise after quitting, and having to struggle without a job or a pension and two babies, I'd also been a very willing little helper. Good little girl that I was, I had willingly swallowed her hatred, and patted it into place with the rest of the things I loathed about myself. I was, it slowly dawned on me, good at being bullied.

When you find a lump, you go through a range of emotions: fear, anger, hysteria, grief are the main ones. When I found my lump, I duly went through all these things.

But something else happened too. I started to call my lump Wendy, in honour of the toxic waste I'd swallowed at the hands of my erstwhile head of department. In honour of the woman who was in a position of power over me, and saw fit to try to destroy a young woman at the start of her career. Because one thing was for sure. I was going to get rid of Wendy. My surgeon was going to help me to deal with my inner bullied once and for all.

And it was't just my surgeon. I knew I had to tell my new boss that I was going to have to slow down, maybe stop for a bit once the surgery was definitely going to happen. I dreaded telling her as much as I dreaded having surgery.

In the event, I need not have worried. Because the only thing my boss was worried about… was me. She just told me to do what I could, and not to fret about it. I went into the surgery on Thursday, safe in the knowledge that I worked for a woman who cares about her employees, who has worked out that a little trust is rewarded with a lot of loyalty, who likes herself enough to like other women.

Thank you
It's taken twelve years, but I am finally free of Wendy. She's out of my system. I wish her well, and hope she hasn't managed to destroy anyone else. Women like her are poor, sad victims of patriarchy and misogyny. I know now that she is to be pitied rather than feared. I know now that it's possible to be a feminist and to dislike women who bully other women. I should have taken her to a tribunal, and didn't have the strength. And wanted out, in the end.

Women who criticise, judge and bully other women are exactly like cancers, our own cells turning on us. If we want equality and freedom, we've got to have the courage to out them.

My daughter and I are running Race for Life on Saturday 9 July. If you would like to support us, please, please do. You can make a donation by following the link.