Cancer has been an ever present aspect of my life for the last number of years. It has defined the way I think and how I approach different situations. Here’s the funny thing though; I don’t have cancer. Nor do any of the people in my family have cancer.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate that, bar the loss of my grandmother in 2002 to a brain tumor at the age of 54, my family has been mostly untouched by loss, grief and tragedy. There have been close calls since then of course. My grandad suffering a heart attack and a stroke, my other grandmother surviving breast cancer, and my other grandad currently battling (treatable) lung disease. For the most part though, these have been shots across the bow. They have all survived and thrived after their brushes with illness and disease. So why has cancer defined my life for the last few years? Because although no one in my family currently has cancer, that’s not to say they won’t get it.
You may be thinking that such thought processes are ridiculous. An irrational fear of mortality and illness, and an attempt to exert control on that which is uncontrollable. But I’m not talking about cancer that pops up out of nowhere, taking a life at random with no rhyme or reason. I’m talking about lung cancer. And in this case, it’s one of those things that you can see coming. It’s a spectre looming over the horizon.
What has brought on this anxiety? Both of my parents smoke. A good deal of my aunts and uncles smoke too. Most have children and families of their own, while those that don’t are successful in their fields of business. In short, each one of them has everything to lose. My parents have smoked since they were teenagers. As I still live at home (thanks jobs and rental market) I’m constantly aware of how bad their habit is. They’re perfectly healthy in their own minds. I usually take a minute to note the irony of them saying this to me as they cough up a lung between sentences.
Us working class folk are a strange beast. When it comes to our bodies and our health we can have a strange mix of arrogance and ignorance, taking our health for granted. As people who are on the lower end of the economic spectrum, perhaps our bodies are one of the few things that we can claim ownership of. It is something we can claim to be an expert on. My parents fit this description. It can be frustrating at times, when my Mam will question the contents of vaccines, with her pack of 20 John Player Blue beside her. I swear she’s one clickbait article away from buying a Himalayan salt lamp.
Of course if you ask them they will tell you that they don’t smoke nearly as much as other people. I often wonder if this is them trying to convince me, or themselves. Every time I see them they’re standing by the back door, one foot in, one foot out, cigarette in hand. They don’t smoke in the house, which raises the question of if you don’t want cigarette smoke in the house than why put it in your fucking body in the first place. They stand outside in the back garden, puffing away, whatever the weather. Honestly, if cancer doesn’t get them first, hypothermia will.
The reason I have been obsessing over my parent’s physical health so much has something to do with my own mental health. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve never had a battle with my mental health. Skirmishes maybe, but never a battle. I have experienced a period of depression, but I would never claim that I have suffered with it. The same too goes for anxiety. However, lately I have noticed that I have become more reflective on things.
The nature of life, our purpose on this earth, and our ever present mortality. As I have become older my thoughts have become more philosophical. I will often look up to a starry night sky and think ‘Fuck me, that’s big’, as I think that the light of each star takes millions of years to even reach us. I will ask myself why there is something instead of nothing, and other pretentiously existential questions.
One of the things that this newfound outlook has changed about my day to day life is that it has made me more conscious of our incredibly short time on this earth. A human life is so short that it’s not even a drop in the ocean in a cosmic sense; 80 years if we’re lucky. As I become more aware of the different impediments to us reaching that ripe old age, anxiety takes its hold on me. My greatest fear is that the people I love won’t realise their potential to make it that far. That is not to say that I am crippled by fear, but I am constantly aware of how quickly life can change due to things that are outside of our control. Anytime a loved one makes a journey, I make sure that I see them off. My family and how lucky I am to have them are constantly in my thoughts. I’ve begun spending more time with my Granda, going for drinks with him every now and again (That part I don’t mind. I haven’t had to pay for a pint in about 6 months). I’m not afraid of the things that I nor anyone else can control. Shit happens after all.
What I am afraid of is the things that we can exert some kind of influence over, yet because of a lack of will or a lack of foresight (or both), we don’t. Lung cancer is one of those things. Sometimes it just happens, as Breaking Bad taught us (and I would really prefer if my parents didn’t start cooking meth). However one doesn’t help their prospects by inhaling tar and nicotine upwards of 20 times a day. That is where my mind is at the moment. I fear that my parents won’t live to see 50. I fear that my siblings will grow up with a massive chunk of their lives missing. I fear that the cosmically short lives of my loved ones will be shorter than they should be. Maybe most of all I fear that if I lose both or either of them I’ll have to pick up the slack in the house, and as someone who doesn’t know how to use a washing machine, that terrifies me.
This anxiety over smoking is also having some negative impacts on my mental well-being. It may seem selfish to make a hypothetical health issue of someone else all about my mental health, but my mind won’t think differently. That’s the thing about anxiety, it’s not like I can tell myself to snap out of it. That’s because I don’t see cancer as something that could happen, I see it as something that will happen. I feel like a passenger in a car that’s heading towards a cliff, and I keep trying to tell the driver to turn the car and avoid it, but they just put their foot on the accelerator, confident that they’ll be fine despite all logical evidence pointing to the contrary. It’s confusing to me, infuriating even. How could someone be so ignorant of something that is so certain. This is endemic of a larger issue that I have been facing with regards to my parents cigarette use, one that has perhaps hit me the hardest.
I‘ve always hated the habit. I don’t want this hatred of the habit to become hatred or resentment of them. Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m a constant ball of seething rage, frothing at the mouth and cursing the very earth they walk on. I love them dearly, or else I wouldn’t be writing this. I interact with them the same way, I am not changed in my general demeanour because of it. What it does mean is that I have preemptively begun the process of grieving for them. One minute I’ll be worried, the next I won’t give a damn. As odd as that sounds, my reasoning is clear. In my mind one of, if not both of them, will contract and die of cancer because of smoking.
Because I can’t see inside them and I can’t tell what damage their decades of cigarette use has done, I find myself in a Schrodinger’s Cat situation; They have carcinogens in their body, I can’t see inside them, therefore they have and do not have cancer. Ok, maybe that metaphor got away from me a little bit, but it speaks to where my mind is at, and how my anxiety is reinforcing itself due to their smoking. I feel worried about their health, they continue to smoke, I feel more worried about their health, rinse and repeat.
I have asked myself if it’s selfish for me to make the health issue of another a mental health issue for myself. Indeed, I think that there is some sort of pathological narcissism there. But I can’t escape the feeling that the path they so wilfully put themselves on only leads to ruin. That they will not acknowledge or make any serious strides to get themselves off that path shows only a complete disregard and lack of respect for the people who care about them most, even if they don’t consider it as such.
I love nothing more in this world than my family, from my parents to my cousins and everyone in between. I don’t fear the things that can’t be controlled. Lung cancer is not an unseen event though. I can see it on the horizon even if the others can’t, or won’t. I feel like I’m the one person trying to steer away from the cliff, while everyone else steers towards it or doesn’t care.
My dad has constantly tried to give them up to his credit. He’ll usually make it about 3 months before relapsing. However, given that he is in the entertainment industry, there’s always a gig, there’s always a festival, there’s always a party that wears down his willpower and he picks the habit back up like it’s going out of style. My mam on the other hand has not once, to my knowledge, made any attempt to kick the habit before she kicks the bucket. For one of them to be successful, they both need to give up.
Such is my anxiety that I have already thought out in my mind what I am going to say to them the day they tell us that they have cancer. Whereas most other people would react with kindness and support, I honestly can’t see myself reacting in any other way than with anger. ‘How could you! Did you not see this coming with all the warnings and the evidence and the thousands of people who suffer with this already? How dare you put your family through this. How dare you deprive your children of a parent simply because you weren’t strong enough to stop sucking cancer into your fucking body.’ I’ve played that fucked up situation over and over in my head and I’m fucking disgusted with myself that my mind goes to that place. But I can’t think of how else I would deal with it. That’s what I will say, because that’s all that I can say.
The effects of cancer aren’t unknown to them, and when you play Russian Roulette with your health with 4 kids who love and adore you, that’s inexcusable. This may sound overly harsh, but sometimes harshness is needed to jolt people out of their complacency. The reality is that they will only have to die of cancer. That’s the easy part. Myself and my siblings will have to live with them dying of cancer. Years afterwards that pain will still be there for us. That thought is the one that I have been stuck on for months, and has defined how I have thought about avoidable illnesses that we give ourselves.
They have nothing to gain from being smokers, but everything to lose, and to not even consider that is in my mind the height of ignorance, arrogance and selfishness. I’m tired. I’m tired of being worried. I’m tired of feeling too much. I’m just literally tired, because the amount of nights where I have been kept awake by the sound of their coughing and breathing has become too many to count. That’s not an exaggeration by the way. I can literally hear my dad breath through two bedroom doors and across a hall. All they’ve given, all they’ve done, they deserve to be long lived and happy. They deserve to see their children grow. They deserve to be grandparents and retire and travel the world and do all the things that their working class upbringings didn’t allow for. My parents deserve to be more than statistics.