Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Non-Cancer Types

Reading Amber's message about the definition of cancer personalities as types who can't say no to favours they don't want to do, or to put-up-ons in general regarding their time, expertise, even their bodies, got me thinking about the opposite personality type to this: the ones who don't give an inch. 

You find them in all walks of life, even in professions which are meant to be vocational (i.e. 'caring'). I've met  a couple this last year or so in local musical circles, and I shudder to think of all the little children taking music exams or auditioning before these asocial men (they happen to be men...) with zero people skills: an insensitivity that isn't so much chilling as cryogenic! I've seen grown women in choirs, women who have borne children, held down responsible jobs, passed serious examinations, quake in their shoes before the MD of a provincial choral society.  I used to think it was funny, until it happened to me. Then I slapped myself and reminded myself of what I have achieved, the rich life I have experienced beyond the limits of the cathedral cloister or rehearsal room. I thought about the personality type, and how these anally-retentive and charmless martinets are more to be pitied than feared - even though they probably don't get cancer! 

Having cancer readies you, and steadies you, to face pretty much anyone and anything. This is not necessarily a good thing, of course; and definitely not a state to be envied or sought after. But it is in many ways a privilege being able to laugh at what isn't important, or only important within a little kingdom in  limited locality. The wide world is bigger than that, and to survive, you have to learn to put yourself out there, in the top percentile. No one can give you permission to write or sing or make music, or make a fool of yourself. More often than not, it's the mediocrities in this world (the Salieris, not the Mozarts) who set themselves up as permission-givers (and often, too, by cowardly proxy); but once you learn to see them without their clothes (or on the loo), their power slips away. Although they probably don't get cancer...

My oncologist (a Mozart, not a Salieri - although I hope he doesn't die so young) rang me yesterday to put my mind at rest about the recent smear. An atrophic cell, which could indeed be down to the Tamoxifen, but no need to call for the heavy artillery yet. Duncan is in the right job for the front-line branch of medicine that is cancer. I'm so glad he isn't playing the organ in some cathedral or directing a loss-making choir. A physician, like a musician, should be an artist (even if that implies a certain open-hearted vulnerability). It's more than an ability or capability. It's a gift.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

A Cancer Personality?

Amber Smithwhite sent me a copy of an article in this month's Mensa magazine, entitled: 'Is Life Really So Wonderful?" (Ghislaine Vaughan in Mensa, May 08)

Yes, it is - and it is to be hung onto and treasured for as long as it is given to us. But the comment on what may or not constitute 'a cancer personality' struck me with the force of truth.

Ghislaine Vaughan writes: "I once read a book about cancer in which the author, Bernie Siegel, a surgeon with many years' experience of talking to, operating on and generally supporting people with the disease, had come to the conclusion that people who get cancer have a certain type of personality. He even went so far as to suggest that you could tell whether someone was a likely candidate for cancer by asking them the following question, which he had found to be the bottom line: "If a friend asked you a favour and you didn't want to do it, would you do it anyway?" Apparently, if you say 'yes' to this question, you are far more likely to develop cancer than if you say 'no'.
It became clear from this idea that those with a cancer personality are in general far more likely to give up their own wishes in favour of those of somebody else. Bernie Siegel gives many examples of how his patients recovered or had long periods of remission when they were encouraged to pursue their dreams and aspirations, including one young man whose prognosis was bleak until he began playing the violin. He had always wanted to study music but had been pushed into a career as a lawyer by his family. As soon as he gave up law in favour of the violin, he got better."

All of which strengthens my resolve to keep up my studies in singing and piano and take my music diploma next year. I got ninety three percent in my last theory assignment, which was a boost to the morale in a week when I had an abnormal (well, 'borderline') smear result. I now have to have something called a colcoscopy - ironical, really, since the reason for putting off the smear test for so long, while I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, was that I thought I really couldn't cope with any more humiliating poking and prodding. Well, now I think I can. And I will. Because it is worth it - it is. It's a wonderful life.