The first instalment of Jenny Diski’s reflections on her recent cancer diagnosis has appeared in The London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n17/jenny-diski/a-diagnosis).

It is essential reading.

I have always loved Diski’s writing (Skating to Antartica particularly). I read the current article – ‘A Diagnosis’ – with sadness, but also with joy. It is vitally Diski – funny, brave and real – and I am grateful that when faced with the challenge of dealing with her recent cancer diagnosis, she decided to share her experience.

She asks the question:

‘A fucking cancer diary? Another fucking cancer diary… Can there possibly be anything new to add?’

Yes. Diaries afford the possibility of witnessing the experiences of others, and although experiences may overlap and share some similarities, each individual one is unique and invaluable as a direct result of its very subjectivity. Thus, each personal experience is by definition original and irreproducible. The value of reporting such experiences is that, although we cannot truly share them, as invited readers we can listen, witness and hopefully affirm the living of another. Michael Palin speaks of diaries as the antidote of hindsight. Which they are, and as the nearest expression we can get to the possibility of understanding what it might be to exist in someone else’s shoes, they can be the most invaluable and authentic of literary forms.

Especially from Jenny Diski’s pen.

‘The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future.’

The ‘Onc Doc’ slipped in at the outset that the goal was ‘to treat, not to cure’. It is salutary to consider both what is often said and what is mostly unspoken during this most critical of person-to-person interactions. Raymond Carver’s poem on the same topic of cancer diagnosis comes to mind:

What The Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them…

… and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not  wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

 

Diski also reflects on the doctor/patient relationship:

‘It’s quite hard to rapidly absorb the notion that someone forecasting your fairly imminent death might not be your enemy.’

‘Sullen rudeness is a possible option handed to us cancerees.’

She considers the language used. When given a prognosis of ‘two-to-three-years’, what is actually being said? Is ‘Onc Doc’ favouring 2, or 3, with the extra year tagged on as a hopeful gesture? What does this timeframe meaningfully equate to in terms of how we normally live our lives:

‘Will the battery on the TV remote run out first?’

Suddenly thrown into another sphere, that of the ‘Cancer World’, Diski contemplates the role she may now be forced to play:

‘I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script’.

‘Now I was faced with the prospect of a rather lengthy (in one view) public/private performance by which to be excruciated.’

She rejects metaphors of attack, and refuses to personify the cancer cells in her body:

‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’

In the face of her diagnosis and all its inherent challenges, Diski answers her own question ‘why another cancer diary’. She is a writer. It is what she does.

‘So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.’

 

CQ

 

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