“That’s not a real cancer” came floating down the telephone line from a colleague. I had ‘phoned her because I had a call from another colleague to tell me that if I wanted to see Joyce again I had better hurry up, she had advanced cancer and was in a wheelchair. Joyce was a rather special colleague, one of the few to understand why I had left the organization where we had both worked. Fascinating lady - international reputation in her area of scientific work. Had been with the organization forever, or so it seemed. She adopted the role of tribal elder, the keeper of the culture. Christmas parties were fascinating as she sat in a corner and told the stories of the place. She didn’t tell its history, she embodied it. She was a person of deep religious faith, and ‘though she drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper, she took her religion seriously and in her spare time worked hard for the poor and dispossessed in very practical ways. About ten years after I left the organisation she retired and moved up to a country town she loved. We had kept up sporadic contact, going up there from time to time, providing transport occasionally, but a few months had passed. I was in a new job, I had just had a diagnosis of cancer and then I got this ‘phone call. I telephoned her - it was a Thursday. We chattered for a while and I suggested that we come up to see her, about three - four hours drive, at the weekend. There was a pause, then “It can’t be this weekend, I have family coming up - you probably don’t know, but I have cancer”. I asked about her cancer and was told where it was - it was serious - and some of the side effects - nasty. Then, “come up the following weekend - you can stay if you want to”. We wouldn’t stay, but I mentioned that I had cancer as well. “What type?” I told her - “That’s not a real cancer”. I didn’t respond and we chatted about the old days a bit, who I had seen or heard of, who she had seen and remained in contact with and then finished the conversation promising to see her in ten days time. I rang off, put the ‘phone down and started to seethe. Mine was a real cancer; I had started treatment to see if it could be shrunk so that I could have further treatment. I didn’t understand then just how aggressive it was or what the numbers meant, but I knew it was a real cancer and that more people died from it that women died from breast cancer. I also new the implications it would have for my family. Joyce was someone that you could have straight conversation with - so I was determined in ten days time to discuss our cancers, the biology, treatment, prognosis and that both were real. A week later I got a ‘phone call from where we had worked together, to tell me that Joyce had died on the Sunday and that her funeral had been on the Wednesday. They didn’t know I had moved again and hadn’t been able to contact me. Joyce lives on in memory, whenever the old crew meet up, someone mentions her. The organization has moved on, moved to another site, expanded and few now remember the old days, the old site and the keeper of the culture. However, she had no right to say that mine was not a real cancer. Just as we do not have the right to denigrate someone else’s cancer experience or what they have been through. What we have and what we have been through is unique to each of us, it contributes to what and who we are. It is ours and ours alone and no one should devalue it. Sailor Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. John Lubbock
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