The Internet and Cancer: a Post for World Cancer Day 2016

The kindest thing anyone can do to someone with cancer is to treat them normally — and avoid giving them the benefit of their advice. ‘Cancer’ is an almost meaningless term, covering a multitude of different diseases. Most people diagnosed with one form or other quickly become internet experts in their own speciality, digesting grim facts and figures and tossing off polysyllabic references to various forms of treatment and their outcomes. I know I did, until I realised that the dire statistics about sarcoma related to very small sample pools and I’d do much better just getting on with things, sticking to healthy food and exercise and avoiding, as far as humanly possible, bugs and viruses. The trouble with the internet is that every crackpot idea can be presented as though it were anything but, and cancer is such an emotive subject that it seems everyone has a view they want to share.

Much more useful, it seems to me, is the way in which the internet does allow those affected by cancer — those with the disease, family, friends, carers — to share not their pseudo-science but their experience, so that it is no longer quite the lonely and frightening business it once was. Of course, cancer is frightening and lonely at times; it’s also painful and expensive and incredibly dreary; but it does not define a person, nor is it the totality of a cancer patient’s life. It can, however, define and become virtually the totality of the life of the carer, be they family or friend. Despite all the splendid initiatives in this country intended to help those who are carers, I feel that more needs to be done. I am sometimes embarrassed when people focus on me and my illness and forget that it is Quietnun who has the harder task. Recently a friend drove over and invited her out for a walk, just the two of them. What a blessing it was that someone was paying attention to Quietnun, thinking what she would enjoy, taking her out of an environment where, like it or not, my illness is constantly present (though I do try to hide the pills and potions and keep my walking-stick more or less hidden).

Today is World Cancer Day and there will be a flurry of appeals for better care, more research and so on. Personally, I would like to see more of an emphasis on those beyond the spotlight, so to say: those who quietly get on with the business of looking after others and who often make huge but unremarked sacrifices. I’d also like to see more care for the bereaved, who are sometimes left angry and bitter. Part of the trouble, I suspect, is that we have not yet changed what Andrew Graystone called ‘the rhetoric of cancer’. We still tend to describe it in the language of war: we fight it, work to defeat it, and eventually lose our battle with it. Such language produces guilt, not only in the one with cancer (I’m not fighting hard enough) but also, after their death, in the carer (I didn’t do enough). I think that is nonsense.

One thing we can all do today is pray. At the same time, perhaps we could each ask ourselves whether there is anything we can do to help others, especially carers. As always, it is important not to press our own agenda. What suits one person may not suit another. Self-forgetfulness does not come naturally to most of us but it is key to being a true friend to another. Indeed, I think I would go further and assert that it is at the heart of all caring. The fact that it is also very Benedictine is surely no co-incidence.