Monday, 28 November 2011

Breaking the news

So how do you tell people you have cancer? I've been breaking the news for years - or at least damaging it quite badly - on a professional basis. But this is a bit of a shocking thing to say, something you kind of want to work up to; take the indirect approach. The question is how?

2 Across: In your loaf, it sounds like a grain bloomer (5,6)

Multiple choice?
Which of the following has brain cancer?
A: Me
B: A razor clam
C: Alesha Dixon
Candidates should bear in mind that of options B and C, one has no discernible brain and the other is a shellfish.

Or just playfully, for the kids?
"What am I? My first is in chemo but not in radiation; my second's in absolutely terrifying bloody lump, and also in trepanation; my third is in neurosurgery but not in ‘just have a Lemsip, you'll be OK’..." And so on.

Nah. Probably best just to come out with it.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to tell my partner Clare, since she was in with me when the neurologist broke the news that I would probably need brain surgery. Tower of strength that she is, she took the whole thing very calmly, simply holding my hand as we walked down the steps from the peeling wooden hut that houses the Glasgow Western’s epilepsy unit and murmuring, “Well, it’s not rocket science...”

Telling my parents, though, was hard; especially since my immeasurably beloved gran had died just hours before I got my own news, and I felt my mum had probably enough to deal with. I actually considered not mentioning it and just turning up with a scar and an asymmetrical haircut, but Clare persuaded me that wasn’t really very fair. So I got it out with a mumbled, “Um, got the MRI results, small brain tumour, completely treatable...” and they coped, because they do, and they told my sister, who also coped. We’re a resilient bunch.

My boss got an email, because I had to explain why I was suddenly taking a couple of days off work, and I rattled through the “small brain tumour, completely treatable” routine again for my staff when I got back to the newsface.

Telling friends. That one was awkward. I didn’t really want to make a lot of phonecalls, even on the off-chance that a few hours on the mobile might just fry the thing out in advance of surgery. I emailed a couple with a “here’s the thing...” sort of a message, but stopped because I realised the whole business was going to turn into an unpleasant early run through the Christmas card list, and I’m going to have to do that anyway pretty soon, and just doing a round-robin seemed a bit inappropriate: “This year started well with a hangover, Clare moved in in April, we saw Roger Waters in concert in London in May, we got an allotment, had a couple of great holidays... oh, and I was diagnosed with what’s quite probably a brain tumour, bit of a bummer, but nothing really to worry about.”

Which is why this blog has come in kind of handy, really. Apart from an excellent opportunity to have a giggle at something people just don’t seem to find all that chortlesome, it has meant I could just post the link to Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, and sit back and let the wonder of social networking do the rest.

I’ve had a lot of very nice responses, well-wishes, and shared stories. An old and close friend who had his own cancer scare a few years back called to pass on his thoughts and prayers (I guess he hasn’t read last night’s post, but the sentiment is appreciated). A friend and former colleague who has also had his brain medically prodded called from his current base in the tropics to send his reassurances, although briefly because “this is costing me a fortune and I don’t like you that much, anyway”. Another friend passed on his best wishes and news of his own forthcoming medical circumcision with the complaint, “here’s me about to have half my cock off and you’ve just got to go one better, haven’t you?”

People are great. The problem is, though, that since I’ve posted the links they’ve started reading this - I’ve had a surprising amount of traffic since last night. So far this has been all a bit of a one-draft, stream-of-consciousness, post-and-abandon sort of an affair without much planned style or artistry and a shameless reliance on a bunch of elderly bad-taste jokes. If I’m getting an audience, I might have to start thinking it through a bit and, you know, writing properly.

This could get like work.


  1. Graeme, I'm sorry to read this. I didn't know you well at school, and this kind of news is always to shocking to hear about, but brings you up particularly short when it's among one of your own, so to speak. Hope your treatment goes well. Isla (nee) Stanger