What part in the overall direction that my life has taken over the years, did the experiences and influences of those early days play? This is a question that from time to time I have pondered. My father would from time to time refer to the need as clearly he perceived it to “let life unfold”. As it happens, it was with my father with whom I was involved in my very first encounter (again, as far as I can remember) with the words “cancer” and “malignancy”.
I was eight years of age and returning home with my father from the town; since we happened to be passing close by, my father decided to visit a friend with whom he shared a mutual interest in music. Upon arrival at the man’s home, I was instructed to “Stay there”, i.e. in a small scullery/living area, whilst my father went into the bedroom to talk to his friend (I don’t recall anyone else being about). After a while he emerged saying, “Mr Goodman would like to see you for a few moments”. My initial awareness that things were somehow different was promptly ‘signalled’ when my father took my hand (a thing that as a small child he had often done in the street but never in the confines of the house).
What I saw in the bed upon entering the room both shocked and alarmed me. Instead of the genial silver-haired gentleman with clipped moustache and twinkling eyes that I had come over time to know, I beheld an almost unrecognisable figure; a skeleton covered in a pallored skin with yellowed and sunken eyes (in later years I would come to recognize the symptom of jaundice). His soft voice was a little more reassuring. Notwithstanding, I do believe that I flinched visibly as he reached out to me with an unfamiliar cold and bony hand.
As we returned to the street on our way home, my father told me that Mr. Goodman was now “very poorly” and – so I suspect – hoped to leave it at that. However, my unease (to put it mildly) must have been clearly in evidence and I pressed my father as to what was wrong with his friend. He replied to the effect that Mr. Goodman had “cancer”. However, when I enquired further, he showed an unmistakable disinclination to pursue matters beyond that point and somewhat abruptly (as I now recall the incident) changed the subject. Later that evening, I ventured into our front parlour to the bookcase and my father’s familiar (in those days) “John Bull” dictionary. Under “cancer” it read, “a malignant spreading growth…”. Then turning to the word “malignant” (I have that same dictionary beside me as I write) it states “pathologically (of disease): of the form which kills; cancerous; growing into surrounding tissue and destroying it”. That was all more than seventy years ago and since then, gargantuan strides have been taken in both healthcare and health education. Yet even up to the present day, misconceptions and misunderstandings over words like cancer, cancerous, malignancy, continue to surface in the minds of folk. So what, in plain layman’s language, is cancer and how does it differ from other forms of illness?