Jo Lennan in More Intelligent Life:
Before this – before cancer – I had never spent a night in hospital. I made it to 30 without so much as a broken bone. Then, in February 2013, I noticed something, a certain discomfort of the stomach. I thought I’d overdone the black coffee in the morning, or the dried mango a houseguest had brought from Darwin. I began to dislike having the weight of my boyfriend’s leg across my body. These didn’t seem like symptoms. They were easy to dismiss, even when things got worse. I saw a GP, then a specialist, in Sydney, where I live. I was given the all-clear, and for a time I did get better. Then, in mid-2014, came several bouts of what felt like food poisoning. In August, instead of eating the Ottolenghi-style cod cakes a friend had carefully prepared, I threw up in her bathroom. I was about to take a work trip to London via Hong Kong, but my GP said not to go anywhere. The specialist rang my mobile to say the same thing, and her voice had a different note, something like alarm. Even so, I didn’t believe it would turn out to be anything serious. I was perpetually ready to assume that things were fine. From there things happened quickly. A surgeon said I had an obstruction in my small intestine that had to be cut out. I cancelled my trip. I bought pyjamas for hospital, because who under the age of 60 actually owns any, apart from old track pants and skimpy camisoles? I put my passwords in a file, which I jokingly labelled, “For if Jo croaks”. Instead of drinks with an editor at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, it was into hospital and under anaesthetic. The two weeks after that are hazy now; a cocktail of painkillers does tend to dull the memory. I remember the news, which showed Scotland voting No. I remember the visits from family and friends, the flowers and gifts. At first I kept quiet about being in hospital, but my parents came to Sydney, a six-hour drive from where they live, and looked bewildered when they saw me. My younger sister, a physiotherapist, flew in from Perth and took me for turns about the ward. I was still feeble and full of tubes, and for a few days I kept my phone off, while my boyfriend acted as gatekeeper and giver of updates. On the Saturday morning, instead of enjoying the warm weekend, the surgeon stopped by. He said the biopsy results were in, and they showed I had cancer.
…But why and how does cancer form, apparently for no reason? Medicine’s answers to these questions have changed dramatically through the ages, as have its methods for treating sufferers. One thing I do read is “The Emperor of All Maladies”, a remarkable book from 2010 by an American oncologist, Siddhartha Mukherjee, who recounts how, in the second century AD, Galen of Pergamon argued that cancer, like melancholia, was caused by an excess of black bile. His approach favoured bleeding and purging of humours, while surgery was used only in extreme cases.