Close Encounter

I lay in bed in the early hours of the morning, wide awake, staring up at the full moon shining in through the bedroom window. It was hot and humid, and I had worries enough to keep sleep at bay. Eventually I turned over - and found myself face to face with an alien.

Its head, totally devoid of hair, glowed an alabaster white in the moonlight. Its enormous grey eyes held mine in a flickering stare. I couldn't tear my horrified eyes away. This wasn’t happening to me – but I was awake. This was real! I felt my face stretch into the rictus of a scream, and the alien – laughed. 

Two months earlier, I was staring at my hands - one hand holding my husband's and the other in my lap - and thinking, "I can't feel my hands". Daft, isn't it, the way your mind reacts to things.  What do you do? What do you say? How are you supposed to feel? This isn't happening to me. And it wasn't happening to me. It was happening to him! If I feel like this, how does he feel? I looked at him - his expression a reflection of mine: How am I supposed to…? Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. That's a death sentence, isn't it? I'm going to be a widow with two young children. I'm going to lose my beautiful Stephen. This IS happening to me.

One in four of us will develop some form of cancer at some stage in our lives. If it doesn’t happen to you, it will happen to someone you love: your mum, your spouse, your child. 

But it's not all bad news. Cancer is not the killer it was and most cancers can be treated. Stephen had a lot in his favour: he was young; he was fit and health-conscious; didn't drink; quit smoking; private medical insurance ensured he got the best of care immediately. And, most importantly, unlike the rest of us who might find a lump and think, "This isn't happening to me", and ignore it for weeks, maybe months, Stephen found a lump on Saturday and saw his GP Monday morning. That, I'm sure, is the number one reason he is alive and well today.

This isn’t going to be a preachy, guilt-inducing speech. This is just a brief narrative of some of what we went through, what you might go through... with an accent on some of life's insensitivities.

While Steve was having the CAT scan to see if and how far the cancer had spread, I sat in the waiting room with only the muzak for company [Karen Carpenter's "We'll Say Goodbye to Love"]. Somebody thought that was a good choice of music for the waiting room of a cancer hospital. 

Stephen had chemotherapy every five weeks for six long months. The tumour (about the size of my fist) shrank to the size of a plum within twelve hours of the first dose. It was amazing. I swear you could almost see it shrinking. He went into full remission after the second dose and has remained in remission ever since. Now all that remains are two tiny scars from the biopsy.

Three weeks after the first chemo, Stephen's hair fell out. Click - and the whole lot was loose. For some reason, we hadn't expected this to happen so soon. It was frightening and unnerving. The tumour was almost gone, but here was evidence that Steve was ill, had cancer, might die. That evening Rhiannon, Callum and I stroked out most of what remained and then I shaved off the rest. He looked beautiful. Over the next few weeks, he lost his eyebrows, his eyelashes and, yes, as everyone asked, everywhere else as well.

Stephen decided he wasn't going to tell his parents he had cancer. "What, you mean we won't see them for the next six months or so, or you'll just turn up looking like ET- and they won't suspect a thing?" Telling Stephen's parents that their only son had cancer was the most difficult thing I ever hope to do. No parent should ever have to hear such a thing.

Everyone wished him well. "How you doing, Steve?" "You look great." "Good luck, mate." Everyone was very supportive - to Stephen. 

It was 11-year old Rhiannon and me that glimpsed another side of human nature.  "How's Daddy?" "He's fine." "Yes," with a sympathetic nod and smile, as though we were either deluding ourselves or being terribly brave in the face of our imminent loss.

There are those among us who derive a pleasure from the misfortunes of others. What's the German word that describes it so well? Schadenfreude. There were some, not many, but one would have been more than enough, who would ask with apparent solicitude, "How's Steve?" and look disappointed when we told them how well he was doing. We were depriving these vampires of something. One such person was a colleague of mine. Every day! I still wish I'd hit her. 

While it was a frightening time for us, we came through it. Steve's chances of developing cancer are now the same as yours and mine: 1 in 4. If the lottery had odds like that, you'd buy more tickets, wouldn't you? You see, it's not just a matter of reducing your chances of getting cancer, but of maximising your chances of surviving it.

I see that I am running out of time. As my boss said to me at the end of that terrible, stressful time, "Well that wasn't too bad, was it? And didn't it go quickly?"

[940 words] Props: cassette tape of "Goodbye to Love" and a small plum.

I wasn't at all sure I'd be able to deliver this speech -- a bit too close for comfort. I had no problems rehearsing it until the day before the speech, when I started to cry every time I got to the bit about telling Stephen's mum and dad. All went well on the night, though, and I enjoyed the speech. And I won Best Speaker award, which was nice.

Given that one of the arguments of the speech was that people say and do awful things, I was stunned by one of the comments made: "Speech feels insincere. Feels too contrived, too rehearsed to provoke sympathy at times. Not sure what alien thing was all about."

Guests and Club Members' Comments

"Thanks. That made a real big impact. Your speech was great. Recommendation: maybe speak out more to the back."

"Humour of muzak was just right to lift audience after tough opening. No notes again. Very relaxed performance. The 'max. chance of survival' message was great and very very important. Well done."

"You are a great storyteller. Very creative, even if it is a true story approach. Very good use of movement. Very brave speech."

"Excellent touching speech. I found the intro a bit confusing. Perhaps you could have cut it and gone straight to the body of the speech, which was so good, then you would have been on time."

"You've experimented with a new style. Less poetic and more storytelling. It was very enjoyable."

"Nice one, Tessa. You hold me in raptures every time. Good vocal variety and nice use of the music."

"That was incredibly touching. The sincerity was powerful. You delivered your story with both reality of the hardships and humour about survival. Your best speech yet! Oh, and I love your message - don't think about the odds of betting cancer, think of being healthy to survive it."

"Confident delivery."

"Very difficult topic extremely well-delivered - like the gag about losing hair everywhere!"

"Your best speech. Good application of all your skills. You used the stage well and good vocal variety."

"Good use of props. Vocal tone relevant to content of speech. Good audience interaction."

"Heart warming speech delivered with humour. Great structure, vocal variety and presence."

"Intelligent use of displaying tumour before and after. Recommendation: raise volume a touch."

"Speech feels insincere. Feels too contrived, too rehearsed to provoke sympathy at times. Not sure what alien thing was all about."