A pain in the arse

I posted earlier in the week about Christopher Hitchens’ writing about his cancer diagnosis, which resonated particularly with me because a colleague – who is much more than just a colleague – has also been processing similar news over the past couple of months.

Jonty is a dear friend, a much respected mentor and all round good chap – he’s one of the people I will miss most when I leave my job. He’s cut from the dapper cloth of classic journalistic archetype – ever with a hat on his head, a fag on his lip and a story to tell. He has a seemingly endless store of hilarious anecdotes from his various past incarnations as a choirboy, a punk, and of course a globe-trotting hack. He’s a voracious reader, a lover of music, an unabashed baccanalian when it comes to good food and drink. Above all he is a magnificent writer, and he is truly kind and generous in sharing both that talent and advice for aspiring journalists.

In that spirit, he is writing about his experiences with cancer, from diagnosis to treatment, for Crikey’s health blog Croakey. It’s called “A pain in the arse: A diary about living with cancer”. He only pitched the idea to Croakey yesterday so I was suprised to see his first instalment posted today.

“I’m a journalist and writing is how I make my living so the mechanics of sitting down in front of a screen and marshalling my thoughts is the best way for me to feel normal.”

He plays with a bittersweet allegory coined by a journalist he admired, James Cameron, who wrote a final column called “A pain in the neck” before he died of an inoperable tumour. Cameron described our lives as like sentences, and his diagnosis was a semi-colon before the final full-stop of death.

“As cancer patients go, I’m one of the lucky ones. The odds are vastly in my favour. I’ve had my own first semi-colon, but I’m looking forward to many more sub-ordinate clauses before my full stop hoves into view.”

He also writes about the difficulty of telling people about his illness – working out who to tell, how to tell, the strange role reversal of often having to console people after delivering the news. It is a confronting read, unsentimental and very honest. I think it’s a really brave and generous thing he is doing, sharing a journey that so many will unfortunately face, raising awareness and of course encouraging people to be vigilant about their health and not wait for the symptoms to get checked out.

“So you’ll indulge me, I hope, if I write about myself for the next few weeks and months. Journalists are supposed to write about other people and the word “I” ought to be anathema for any self-respecting hack, but this is a part of my treatment that I can control. It’s cathartic for me – and if anyone reading this finds something they can identify with or provides them with a little comfort (or gives them a giggle – the urge for a bit of black humour has never been far away these past months), then I’ll have done a good job.

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