Thoughts on Illness
Some time back in November last year, things were looking pretty exciting. I had been offered a university job in Hong Kong, my partner Elee was well on the way to finishing her PhD, and we were looking forward to a change of scenery. Having been teaching in higher education in the UK for about six years or so, I was feeling in need of a change; and being in Hong Kong seemed like a good way to move forward my growing research interests in China.
But then things took an unexpected turn. Simmering away in the background for the couple of weeks during which I was going through the interview process for the job (it was a Skype interview, so it was—as a friend pointed out—theoretically the only job interview that I could have done without wearing any trousers), I was also going back and forth to the hospital with Elee as she went through various tests. Then two things happened within twenty-four hours of each other: I was offered the job, and half a day later, Elee was given the diagnosis of breast cancer.
So I turned down the job, Elee put her PhD on hold, and very quickly we found that our lives were overtaken by medical matters: appointments and consultations, chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy. It turned into a very long winter, followed by a very long spring. And I won’t go into details about the whole course of treatment and so on, except to say that we were lucky, in many ways. Friends and colleagues were extraordinarily kind and supportive. The cancer responded very well to treatment. The standard of care in the hospitals in Leicester was breathtakingly good. Elee weathered the horrible business of cancer treatment with remarkably practical and good-humoured stoicism. And one of the things that really gave me the strength to go on, as I stumbled into my classes at the university bleary-eyed with sleeplessness and worry, wondering how I’d struggle through another day, was the energy, good-will, thoughtfulness and commitment of my students. I have never felt more privileged and grateful to be teaching than I have over the past year.
Generally speaking, I’m not a particularly confessional blogger, and so many times over the past months, I have wondered whether I should write about what has been happening on this blog, but have pulled back from doing so. I simply haven’t wanted to end up giving a running public commentary upon all of this. And if I’ve blogged less than I would like on other topics, it is because my energies have been involved elsewhere.
But now that Elee’s treatment is more or less complete, and has gone well—the prognosis is good and now we’re beginning to turn our attention to other things— I thought I’d say something about what has been going on. Elee’s PhD is back on track. I’m plunging back into my Chinese studies, starting with an intensive course in advanced Chinese at LSE in London over the next two weeks. And although both of us, in different ways, are battered and bruised, we’re regaining some sense of ongoing life.
On thing that I have been thinking about over the past few months, in the light of all this, is illness. I recall one conversation with a friend earlier in the year, around the time that we were beginning to talk about prognoses and other matters, when we were coming to terms with the fact that there was a possibility (much smaller than we feared, it has turned out) that the cancer could turn out to be fatal. It was horrible, I said to my friend. We were weathering the storm, but it was horrible. Ah, my friend said, you should remain positive. Maybe, I said, but it was still horrible. You can’t think like that, my friend said. Why not? I asked. Because, she said, you have to remain positive. And although this was all very kindly meant, I couldn’t help wondering then why I had to remain positive, for whose sake, and what it meant to remain positive. I was worried by the speed with which my friend wanted to move away from the thought “it is horrible” (it is—I do not recommend cancer to anyone) to another, happier thought. And I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.
Ehrenreich, who herself went through treatment for breast cancer, noted that after the diagnosis, “The first thing I discovered… is that not everyone views the disease with horror and dread. Instead, the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.” In this, what Ehrenreich calls the “The Bright Side of Cancer”, cancer (as with disease more generally)* is considered to be somehow redemptive, offering the “intangible benefits of spiritual upward mobility”. And positivity is necessary not only because it makes life more liveable, but also because it is believed to have some effect on the cancer itself, despite the fact—as Ehrenreich has pointed out—that there is no decent scientific evidence for this.
But then, as now, I’d like to hold out for the notion of illness as illness, rather than seeing illness as some kind of move in the perpetually self-overcoming game of personal development. To see difficulties as moral teachings provided by the universe, or as moral challenges to which we must rise, is to refuse to see these difficulties as what they are. It is a way of pushing difficulty away because it is, well, difficult. It is a melancholy fact that, rather than enriching life, illness very often diminishes it. And the refusal to recognise this is a refusal to really recognise the effects of illness on human life. A phrase has been rattling round my head over the past few months: illness is life’s diminishment. And it is not unreasonable to say that life for both of us has been, of late, significantly diminished. How could it not be?
Now that we are coming out the other side of this, I genuinely don’t feel that I have any great wisdom to impart as a result of these difficulties. I resist the notion that this has been some kind of improving experience. Cancer is not night-school. Mostly, I’m just glad that it is more or less over and grateful to friends and colleagues and my wonderful students and the help and support we have both received. As the shadow of illness recedes, we are beginning to regain some broader sense of life and its possibilities. I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to what comes next. Who knows? Now that we are no longer so caught up in all of this, I might even find myself writing more frequently on this blog…
*Though perhaps not all disease: for reasons that are perhaps too complex to go into here, there are few who argue that Gonorrhea, for example, is redemptive or that it makes you a better, kinder person…