The mask

OUR PERSONAL FRONT
So many people judged me by how I looked on the outside – my personal front. The effects of cancer are often on the inside.

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the mask

Inside, my body had been bombarded by radiation, giving me the runs. The chemo made my nose and mouth bleed, and gave me mouth ulcers. Part of my colon has been removed, and I have a bag instead. I had regular throat convulsions in the night for up to five hours. My feet and hands were burning, and sensitive to the cold. My skin was hyper-sensitive to the sun.

It’s not on the outside

EXPECTATIONS
People have certain expectations of cancer patients. A big one is the way we’re expected to look. On my four-day steroid boost, I looked super-healthy to begin with – not at all like the expectations.

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Because this wasn’t irritating or upsetting, it was something I kept silent about – most of the time.

Holding back

I’m a middle-aged man who holds things back by default. In the early days of diagnosis and treatment, this was especially true. I felt a duty to keep a tight rein on my emotions, and to reassure my family and friends that things were OK.

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This drawing project became one way to open up to people, because I had to keep so much inside.

Talking cancer

TELLING OTHERS
This is never easy.

FAMILY: TWO STEPS
I found it the hardest thing to pick up the phone and tell my family I have cancer. I couldn’t do it straight away, so I sent them all a text, knowing I’d have a bit of time to prepare myself for the follow-up calls. To some, this might seem cold. But for me, it was the only way to stay in control (more on that later!).

WORK
I found out about my cancer the week before going back to work after the summer break. What to do? Wear a badge, maybe? I told a few friends, but stuck to the usual script for everyone else. I was expecting the call for surgery within days, so it was difficult to face my students and explain what was going on. I leaked the truth in stages.

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HOW TO TALK TO SOMEONE WITH CANCER
Some people were supportive when dealing with my new circumstances. They said how sorry they were, and listened when needed. Top marks to them.

Some were fine but well-meaning, and did that thing where you tell someone a story about a relative/friend who had cancer and survived. That’s OK, but doesn’t really help. It’s a cliché, but everyone is different, and this is happening to you. You alone. You’re probably still processing, and maybe don’t know whether you’ll survive.

Others just avoided the subject. Not a major problem, but not helpful either.