Is Cancer Contagious?
Of course, I'm being facetious. But it's amazing how a little question like that can become an earworm that repeats itself deep in ones brain in the middle of the night.
When Gary and I decided that Trip, the male protagonist of our novel, should be dying of cancer, we had no thought for the future or even for our pasts. I'd had primary breast cancer a few years before and it was all a bit 'been there, done that, got the t-shirt'. The fact had no relevance to Trip or to our story. Then we dictated that Ruthie should also have been touched by life-threatening illness. I can't remember what brought us to that decision, I think it was something shallow like we wanted to show how differently she and Trip dealt with their cancers. We certainly didn't think about the devastation two such diagnoses might have wrought in the landscape of Trip and Ruth's relationship.
Such hubris. There we were, each of us safe in the shelter of our own happy, long marriages, happy to fling around drama and trauma and potential tragedy and to leave our poor characters to deal with it all. Which they did. Admirably, in fact. Just as, I believe, we like to think we would do too: cancer? Got it covered. Terminal cancer? No problem, just bring it on. Affairs? Pish, mere blips. Mother died? Never mind, still got a dad.
In the end, Ruth's breast cancer is only mentioned in passing a couple of times and, of all the parts in the book that could be based on reality, these parts aren't. The description of her scar, her misshapen breast and the tattoos for radiotherapy are true to me, but Ruth's experience is purely hers, not mine at all. Interesting then, that she is concerned about the 'can you catch cancer' fear. Well, to be clear, she thinks that Trip was concerned with the catching cancer fear.
“So, what's this?” JP traces the silvery scar on my right breast, stroking the puckered skin. “Cancer?”
“Yep. Five years ago.”
“You're not bothered by it. By people seeing the scar, I mean.”
I shrug. I'm not really. Strange, considering how vain I am about everything else. It's a stark contrast to the fuss I made about having breast cancer when it was diagnosed and what a drama queen I was during the treatment. Perspective changes.
I lift my arm, show him the deep dip with its accompanying scar in the pit.
“This is where the lymph nodes were taken out. I was lucky, they were completely clear. And this -” I push his finger into the little hole. “- is from the drain they put in. I've got tattoos too, if you look closely, for the radiotherapy.”
“What, these little biro marks?” He touches each one of them, then bends to kiss my nipple. “You're amazing.”
For a second I want to cry. It's true I'm not bothered about the scars, about the way my breast is misshapen because of the tissue removed from it. But, the thing is, Trip, you weren't able to touch it, were you? Oh, you made a point of stroking it when the bandage came off and at various, horribly self-conscious, moments after that to prove to us both you didn't mind the way I looked. But after the operation, you never caressed my breast again, never pinched the nipple hard enough to make me moan, never sucked it - even though you knew how much I liked it. It just made you profoundly uncomfortable. I wondered whether you had some vestigial fear you might catch cancer from it. And then you did.