Telling people you’ve got cancer or that a loved one has died are difficult situations which can be received in so many different ways, sympathy, empathy, embarrassment or just not knowing what to say.
Interestingly enough I found revealing and talking about my cancer hasn’t been nearly as difficult as I might have imagined especially compared with breaking the news of Kath, my first wife’s, sudden death in 2003.
Whilst trying to comprehend this incredible loss I attempted to avoid situations where I might bump into familiar faces unaware of my awful news when they would mention that they hadn’t seen Kath around for a while. My initial reaction was to say: ‘That’s because she died’, but instead I stumbled through something nonsensical trying to break the news gently ending up having to play the role of consoler.
That was thirteen years ago, and nowadays with the power of social media and just a brief note most people are aware of whatever the calamity is and they have a medium where they can safely respond. Maybe it’s because of my past experiences, but I have decided that it is so much easier to just be honest about what I am going through and not let any fall out worry me.
Not long after I was diagnosed with cancer I was out walking my guide dog Zorro when a friendly neighbour on his way to work stopped me asking how the festive season had treated me, probably expecting a minute or two of polite conversation involving kids, turkeys and too much booze. Instead I choose to hit him with both barrels: “Well we had a really nice Christmas thanks mate, but the five hour operation on the 30th December to remove brain cancer rather stymied the New Year’s celebrations”.
Since then I haven’t been stopped by too many neighbours, maybe the word is getting around that if you stop to pass the time of day with that blind bloke you could be there for a while! As a rule I tend not to talk about the operation too graphically, anyway you’d need to look twice these days to spot the scars on the back of my head.
It makes a pleasant change talking about the cancer to be honest rather than being blind. There have been a number of times I’ve barely settled myself into the taxi my seat belt not yet fastened, when the twenty questions begin- ‘How did you lose your sight?’, ‘How old were you when it happened?’ and ‘Have you ever been able to see?’ Sometimes the driver hasn’t even asked me for my destination before the Spanish inquisition begins. With some taxi drivers I think that maybe it's their culture to be more honest which strips some of the social niceties but still I expect some foreplay! If I was obese would they ask how much did I eat to reach my size?
I clearly remember an embarrassing situation when I was returning back to the UK from overseas and the taxi driver hadn’t noticed that I was guided into the car by a Heathrow staff member while he was busy loading the bags. We had been chatting along through the whole hour journey when the conversation switched to the football results at which point he handed me the sports section of the newspaper. I was twenty-three at that time and I simply didn’t have the confidence to tell him that I couldn’t even see, let alone read his paper. So I pretended to read it, most likely upside down rather than say anything to him. With maturity has come confidence and I’m less afraid of embarrassing strangers with the truth that I’m blind. I also find that traveling with my guide dog or putting my white stick on display also limits possible challenging situations.
When out and about I often find myself wishing people would introduce themselves when they come over for a chat. Perhaps they assume being blind gives me hearing good enough to discern all voices in my memory bank. Also, not that helpful when part of your memory bank has recently been chopped away. In reality it can be hard to work out a voice in a noisy street or restaurant. Especially when I am seeing that person out of context. It would be so much easier all round if the person just said, ‘Hey Rob, it’s Joe Bloggs’, otherwise I find myself having to say “Who are you again?’ Obviously, not ideal when it ends up being someone I have known for ages!
Recently a niggling pain in my buttock from years of running has reared its head again so I decided to book in with a physio to deal with it. I had to find a physio I hadn’t used before. I am used to saying that I’m a blind sportsman and that I’ll be coming along to the appointment with my hairy guide dog. However, this was a completely new experience for me to say that I had brain surgery and I was having cancer treatment. I wasn’t sure if a blind, brain tumour patient would scare them off, but the good news is they took it in their stride and they booked me in for an appointment to get their elbows stuck into the right places!
The older and uglier I get I realise that a truthful, direct approach is usually the best way. So I reckon just put it out there and see what happens…
Until my next post…
Rob Matthews MBE. Paralympian