Letters: courage in the face of cancer

·6 min read

As someone who was diagnosed with an incurable cancer around the same time as Deborah James, I have watched her public response to living with cancer with both awe and detachment (“In her gracious acceptance of death, Deborah James has given us lessons in how to live”, Comment). Awe, in the way she can TikTok dance with a cannula in her arm and in the way she navigates the bathos of cancer as a public discourse, deftly side-stepping self-pity and blame.

Detachment, in that I have responded neutrally to cancer. I avoid talking about it beyond medical professionals. I know when someone has heard I have cancer. It is in their eyes: a look that says I am no longer an equitable member of the human race. I resent the existential pressure to live a “better” life now that I am in a sprint finish between liver and heart failure. There is to be no bucket list existence. No sponsored runs up mountains for palliative care that I will undoubtedly need if my liver starts to fail. I am determined to continue with my ordinary life that is fitfully productive and apathetic.

So, when James eloquently described her decision to end all treatment and how there was no right time to die, how I so believed her, and how I cried. I even cried when the government expedited her damehood so she could proudly sit in the same chair with the freshly minted medal. There was something just so triumphant about it.
Mark Newell
London NW5

There are many truths in Nicci Gerrard’s article, and so much to admire about James’ courage and love of life in the face of imminent death. Unfortunately, her story isn’t unique and, having watched my wife die in similar circumstances, I question the concept of “good death” with a disease like this.

Despite the best hospice care and a lot of caring medical expertise, my wife’s death was tough and brutal. Death, like birth, is painful, bloody and complicated, and I think it’s important that we acknowledge that.
Andrew Clyde
London W12

We are of like mind, you and I

Sam Wolfson’s essay on the word “like” was full of charm and richly informed (“Why do people, like, say, ‘like’ so much?”, Magazine). It was especially good as a reminder that it’s more interesting to try to understand how language is really used, in all its nuance, rather than to shudder in despair at its perceived misuses.

All that liking made me think about what poetic language does; I encourage my students to think about poems as things that not only use similes, but also behave like similes themselves: they ask us to compare and contrast our experiences with ones very different to our own, and to ask what those experiences might be like, however strange seeming. Maybe the most famous simile in a poem is the opening of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table…”

It’s an arresting image, but it’s not immediately clear what it means for the “evening” to be “like” a patient on a table at all (Simply spread out? Apparently without life ? Ready to be cut open?). We have to work at how the one thing relates to the other, and in the process we’re working through how alike or unlike other different things might be – things like that “you and I” in the first line. Cheers to Sam for taking the time to understand “like” and all its likenesses.
Chris Townsend
Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

Wake up, Bill Gates

Your interview with Bill Gates showed him to be a very well-informed, energetic and caring man (“Your Questions for Bill Gates”, the New Review). However, he continues to propagate a myth about the cause of climate change. He says: “Most of the emissions are from middle-income countries.” That’s largely true, but only because these countries manufacture goods for the “developed” nations – we import goods and export our emissions.

Gates also picks on population growth. Climate change is not being caused by population growth in Africa, “the last continent left with meaningful population growth”, but by the levels of consumption in the developed world. US historian and social thinker Howard Zinn said that in his lifetime he would use up the resources and give off the emissions of a whole Indian village.

Surely Gates understands that we are heading for climate catastrophe because the economic system that is spreading worldwide tells us that the good life depends on excessive material consumption. Perhaps he needs to wake up so that he can see that the “American dream” has become a nightmare.
Eileen Peck
Benfleet, Essex

My kingdom for an office

Julia Hobsbawm’s article makes a good case for the benefits of working from home, but assumes that workers have somewhere to work effectively (“Let them eat cheese: WFH is here to stay”, Focus). I have been happily productive for 20 years working from a room in my terrace house but, since lockdown ended, a desire for home improvements has been unleashed. When my ex-neighbours told me that they were moving out for six months so that they could “get the whole house done”, I didn’t realise how disruptive it would be.

It’s impossible to plan a Zoom call when someone can hammer-drill into the wall at any moment. It really did take six months to remove every original feature and polish the new concrete and, during that time, I longed to have an office to go to.
Mat Walker
London N8

Hair loss is no joke

I’m bald, and I used to be a teacher (“Let’s not mock bald men. But do they really feel threatened?”, Comment). That means that in front of a group of teenagers you start with an inescapable minus quantity. And it’s not just the kids: colleagues will make jokes about “follically challenged” people – as if you haven’t heard all the baldy jokes a thousand times. It wasn’t the only reason I gave up teaching (see “How teaching became unrewarded and unrewarding”, Letters) but it sure helped.
David Cole
Aulnay de Saintonge, France

The measure of Murdoch

Professor John Tully draws our attention to Kevin Rudd’s petition for a royal commission into Newscorp, which Rudd calls a “cancer on democracy” (Letters). The playwright Dennis Potter revealed in his final interview, with Melvyn Bragg in 1994, that he called his pancreatic cancer “Rupert” (“I would shoot the bugger [Murdoch] if I could”). Dennis Potter had the measure of Murdoch 28 years ago.
Chris Waller

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