It’s strange how one moment can change your whole life. For most people, it tends to be an action or some big event that marks the pinnacle of their days but for me, prior to that moment, there was nothing. At 16 I, like all others, followed the mundane Monday to Friday school routine and went about trying to make my sixth and final year of school some sort of success.
At that time, it was meant to signify the start of a new beginning. The end of school brought with it a fresh start, changing perspectives; a new me? Yet, at 16, my final year of school and all of the years prior to that were defined by a diagnosis. That diagnosis was cancer, and I would have rather, by any means possible, relived that dull daily routine instead.
Cancer comes with a stigma, but it’s riddled with misconceptions. That’s what I learned right from the moment the words were uttered: “Jack, I’m sorry to tell you it’s skin cancer.” Yeah, that really is how it’s said. No silver lining, no prize, not even a sticker for your hard work; just plain old cancer.
As I sat in that bleak beige office – an adequate colour for news that was similarly discomforting – and I was given my diagnosis I didn’t combust into flames. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky, either. An aura of normality paved the road ahead and I was still the same Jack I was when I had entered that room. Nonetheless, as I looked to my mum for a strand of reassurance I could tell that she was broken, and the emptiness in her eyes embodied my now drained level of hope.
I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. You can imagine my surprise, as prior to the diagnosis I’d applied an array of creams to this stupid spot. And, no, Sudocrem was not the cure to my cancer. My confusion turned to resentment. How can I have skin cancer? I was too scared of sun beds to ever go on one. I was careful? I wore sun cream and even when I burned on that occasional off-chance, it would turn to tan a day later. Surely that makes it okay?
Post diagnosis was odd. I would wake up to a fruit smoothie and a drawn-on smile from mum. Dad tried to not to succumb to the stress and stay positive for me – as you do – and my younger sister looked upon me with a longing for the days where all was normal. We went about accepting our new, redefined normality and when I met those strangers in the hallways of my house we all maintained the “I’m okay” mantra.
I think depression reached out to us all at that stage. It would have been easy to clutch his cold hand, but who likes things easy? As the days passed and I met with social worker after social worker, I began to make cautious steps towards the funny side of it all. My anger subsided to jokes and sadness to a weird, unfamiliar sense of positivity. Those initial worries of how people would react to the news left too.
There was something sort of cathartic about that. Demeaning the cancer to a single puny word and giving it a royal two finger salute in celebration. But, at the end of the day I was engulfed by the disease. It was a waiting game – and a slow one at that. At sixteen I felt like a stranger in my own body; a mere spectator of the film that was my life.
Before I went into theatre for my operation, my dad accompanied me into a room to get all the wires and things attached, I’m assuming that it was a heart monitor but I’m not really sure. I was scared; I had succumbed to genuine fear. As the drugs entered my system the doctors counted down. I looked at my dad and he held my hand. It was nice to know that he was there, but we were helpless.
It was about a month after that when the phone rang. It was Sheena – the nurse who had diagnosed me and a saviour ever since. What do you say to someone with that news? The cancer was gone; without a trace. I was going to be okay. I didn’t know how to react – so I dropped the phone and cried.
I could relax now and the tears that were once torn from my eyes now fell with relief.
For me, the days with cancer will never end and I will always be attached to it in some way, or another. I don’t think I’ll ever accept that it happened. But it is my normality – and I’m happy.