I beat cancer – and then immediately wanted it back

Having cancer as a 28-year old was a lonely business. The never-ending wait in the waiting room. The long, slow crawl through the scan machine. The monotony of watching a strange red liquid being pumped into your veins for hours on end. Too much time to think is just that: too much time. You end up feeling isolated and out of control.

A lot of people try to wrestle back control over their cancer by giving it a nickname (my favourite, from online research, is ‘Tumournator’). It’s a way of belittling their uninvited guest; the name takes the edge off its power. Name it then kill it, that’s the goal.

I didn’t give my cancer a name, beyond the prosaic, medical term that the doctors used – Stage 4 Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. However, it definitely had a persona. I treated it like the annoying little brother I never had: hard to ignore and easy to hate. However hard I tried to shake this ‘pesky little brother’, he was always lurking, reminding me that he wasn’t going anywhere.

Cancer becomes your reason for getting up in the morning and your reason not to. It becomes both your shield to hide behind and your calling card. Cancer becomes you. It consumes you. Literally.

So I searched for distraction. It was 1995 when I was diagnosed; I found solace in Bruce Springsteen, the OJ trial, and – far more invidiously – gambling. The first two were escapism, pure and simple: in music that transported me to a place where anything is possible; and in a drama that was more punchy than the Sopranos and a reality show more twisted than Love Island. As for the third, gambling became an addiction: something that swallowed me up, whole. It grabbed my cancer by the throat, squeezed hard and dueled for my attention for nine long months.

Theatre director and author, Raz Shaw

On March 20th 1996, after six months chemotherapy and three months radiotherapy, I was given a clean bill of health and sent on my merry way. But I didn’t feel merry. Instead, all I felt was melancholy and sadness. Sadness that my ‘pesky little brother’ who had been at my side all this time had gone. And deeper sadness that I now had to return to being ‘normal’ like everyone else.

I know this sounds messed up, selfish even, but I was grieving for my cancer. I was mourning for my ill self, for the focus and purpose that I’d had during my cancer months. I was mourning for the people who looked after me, for the friends I’d made in the wards and waiting rooms of hospitals. I was mourning my cancer.

Even more bizarrely, I started to hear a whisper in my ear: “Come back cancer, please come back.” 

In that moment I felt dirty and repulsed and above all disloyal. Disloyal to the friends and family who’d supported me on this rollercoaster ride. Disloyal to those magnificent doctors and nurses whose medical and emotional expertise helped to save me. And above all, disloyal to myself. I’d spent nine months confronting cancer head on, laughing in its face, and the moment I sent it on its way, I wanted it back. Perverse!

Why wasn’t I relieved? I have been asking myself that question for over twenty years; it’s one of the questions that led me to want to write a book about my experiences. Looking back now, I can see that cancer had become my home, my safety net. My family. Without it, I felt like I had nothing – that I was nothing. 

Which is possibly why my life got worse in the immediate weeks after I got better. Without cancer to focus on, I became consumed by gambling – it was the only thing I had left. For three weeks, I self-destructed through blackjack, in timeless casinos with no clocks and blacked out windows. It was a last hurrah: a final, expensive, and oddly nostalgic wave goodbye to nine months of being ruled by twin foes: cancer and addiction.

On April 9th, 1996, I was in a betting shop. I had £500 on trap two in a race at Walthamstow. As the race started it was clear that the man standing next to me had money on the same dog. We both almost literally went blue in the face screaming for the two dog. It lost by a hair’s breadth. A dog hair’s breadth. I turned to the man next to me assuming that his apoplexy meant that he had a similar amount as me on it and I asked him how much he’d bet. “50 pence,” he said. “My last 50 pence.” And that’s when it struck me. It never ends. This will never end.

So it had to end. Had to. It all became blindingly obvious. If such things as epiphanies actually happen, this was as close to one as I was ever likely to have. I left the betting shop in a daze.

On April 10, 1996, I woke up to a feeling that I hadn’t had for a very long time. If ever. Dead Calm. The raw agony and sadness of the last few weeks had been replaced by tranquility. 

I haven’t gambled since. And, bar the odd twinge of nostalgia, my cancer grief has also never returned. Those three crazy post-remission weeks in hell were the kick-start to the person that I am now. They forced me to find clarity in my remission and reminded me of a world I never wanted to return to.  22 years on, I am indeed living my best life, as a millennial might say. I no longer grieve for my cancer – but I am thankful to it. My cancer made me the person I am now. It saved my life.

Death and The Elephant: How Cancer Saved My Life by Raz Shaw (HB, £16.99) is out now

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