The first phone call is the worst. If you are lucky, they give you a warning. “I’ve got some bad news.” You tense up, imagining something terrible – divorce, bankruptcy.
But it’s worse; “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. It’s not good.”
You never recover from that first brush with death, because it’s so unexpected. My GP says you don’t really face your own mortality until someone close to you dies. If you are lucky, as I have been, you reach your 40s with your parents and children around you. But around the 40 mark, bad things start to happen. That’s when the genetic weaknesses kick in – heart attacks, breast cancer, strokes.
The first time you lose a friend, you are overwhelmed. From the minute they tell you, you think about it constantly. You spend every spare moment on the internet reading about cancer – surely the doctors have missed something? Forty-two year old women with two young children don’t just die; this can’t be happening! All our lives we are told that virtue is rewarded. But it’s not true – in fact, we are all just one blood test away from oblivion. And it is completely random.
The second and third times are easier, because it is not such a terrible shock. Quite soon, you find yourself fluent in the language of illness – tests, treatment, hospitals. Chemo and radiotherapy. You know where to buy wigs – the best ones come from the Orthodox Jewish community – for religious reasons, they cut their hair very short, but their wigs are beautiful.
And, as you know what patients like to eat, you bring out the pots and cook – it’s as if you can cure cancer with food! Nourishing broths for the patient, meals for the family. And then, one day you take over a dish and realise it's the last time you’ll see each other. There’s only days to go, and this precious time belongs to the family. You give them a kiss and hold yourself together till you get to the car. That night, you crack open a bottle of wine and weep.