No More Fucking Lasagne 

Do you know what’s worse than a hypochondriac? A vindicated hypochondriac. 

You know it’s going to be bad when your GP gets choked up. No one likes telling a mother she’s got cancer. Doctor Tearful needn’t have worried. I’d been working towards this moment for years. 

I’ve a significant history of cancer in my family, and since my early twenties my body had produced its own selection of concerning lumps and bumps. That, combined with a middle-class-prescribed amount of generalised anxiety disorder, meant my approach to health screening drifted to the paranoid side of vigilant. All of this meant that cancer scares were my bag, but not actual diagnoses. So I certainly didn’t think I’d ever get as far as a weepy GP offering me tissues while saying “journey” a lot. 

In April 2018 I found a small lump on my bikini line. In less than a fortnight I went from having a ‘likely hernia’ to a biopsy-confirmed squamous cell carcinoma up my bum.  

I had anal cancer and it was in my lymph nodes. That, as they say, escalated quickly.  

These days, the cancer story follows a neatly set template. It’s a tale we (think) we all know. We’ve read the books and wept over Stepmom. So when the 21st-century bogey monster gatecrashes your party, the next few chapters are written and ready to go. People hear your news and live the whole tragic trajectory for you. You can see it in their eyes … and trust me, it only takes about eight seconds for them to get the bit about your funeral. As I discovered, it was bad having cancer, but it was even worse being someone’s pity porn. 

So, I announced my illness on Instagram. I built a slide show in pastels and emojis that finished with a Q&A instructing people how I wanted them to react. “If you see me in the street / school-yard / your instastream,” I wrote, “PLEASE, put away the Pity Eyes. I don’t need them, thanks. However, both humour and nakey Jude Law pics gratefully received.” 

It worked. That weekend, my phone pinged with Nudey Judey night and day. After a bleak fortnight, I smiled for forty-eight hours straight. 

That cancer template I told you about? It grimly rolls out in silence and solitude, which can be isolating, oddly shameful, even. Anal cancer isn’t glamorous. Duh. The diagnosis is confronting, the treatment is brutal and the side effects can be ferocious. After those first few weeks, I felt king-hit and alone. For me, I decided, the only way to control the uncontrollable was to share. Share it all. 

Initially I told myself I was simply using my social updates as a really morbid newsletter, blandly updating those who cared. Yet it was clearly deeper, more selfish than that. You see, it’d always sat strangely with me, my 2D social identity. She was filtered, in more ways than one, and a bit—gasp—boring

So I relished delivering this more emotional, more honest account of what it felt like to be told, “Hey! You might be dying! Like, quite soon!” 

The worst thing I could imagine (besides my own premature death, obvs) was the arse tumour nicking my sense of humour, my very sense of self. Give me cancer, but for godsakes don’t take away my irony.   

I started saying stuff Cancer People weren’t mean to say. I banned words like ‘journey’ and instead created my own ‘inspirational’ cancer memes. “I need a friend,” the beautiful text read over the peaceful landscape. “Do you want to get cancer with me?”  

I called them my Notspirationals. People freaked out. It was great! Another one read, “No, I don’t want any more f’ing lasagne” … And yes, after that one, there were far fewer carby casseroles on the front step. 

The more honest I was, the more positive the response, and the braver I became. And I was actually laughing, genuinely so. My friends were too … although, in hindsight, probably more from shock than anything else. 

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the magical tale of how Instagram Cured My Cancer. 

Gags aside, there are some things you can’t avoid when dealing with The Cancer. We pitched out my medical care and built a ripper trio of oncologist, radiologist and surgeon—all of whom I’d be afraid to meet in a laneway knife fight, which is exactly the sort of sparring spirit you need in a cancer-treatment team. A clinical psychiatrist who knew me before I was cancer-y delivered a weekly fix of sanity, and some excellent brain drugs, to boot. Family and friends hunkered down in a, frankly, embarrassingly supportive way. My kid meant I couldn’t wallow and weep, at least during the hours she was awake. And my husband made me thank my twenty-two-year-old self daily for picking such a bloody good bloke. 

Cancer’s BAD, you guys. I’m still pissed that I had to be the statistic who took one for the team. The treatment has changed my body forever. It just doesn’t work like it used to—which doesn’t feel fair, at thirty-seven. I’ve felt such sadness and been so scared that, even during happy times, the tinnitus of trauma doesn’t ever completely switch off.  

But all the Hallmark-card bollocks is true: after the rain comes the … oh God, sorry, I just can’t bring myself to say it. But trust me. It’s not all bad. This is what the new, modern cancer looks like—an illness we can drag out of the horror section.  

I don’t know where I’ll be with this cancer malarkey when you read this piece. I may be bald and hollow, steeling myself for another round in the ring, or bouncing fit and wondering if it was really as bad as all that (spoiler: it was).  

All I can hope is that cancer eventually becomes another notch on my life’s bedpost. In the meantime, I can claim better friends, funnier stories, sparklier mornings and the absolute certainty that I am truly one tough mother.