How I Learned That Cancer Can Be Heartbreakingly Funny

My dad forgot how to dress when my mum had lymphoma, and would turn up to things dressed in XL T-shirts with Al Pacino and guns all over them.

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Feb 4 2015, 1:00pm

Image via Beatrice Murch

My mum was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of years ago. She's now in remission, and it was a horrendous time that my family would never want to repeat in a million years. But, much like how I imagine the experience of eating a piece of hardened dog shit embedded with nuggets of milk chocolate might be, there were pockets of joy.

The first laugh-out-loud moment came when Mum was hospitalised for having an extremely low blood count and was given an immediate transfusion before her consultant was able to diagnose her. A problem with excess fluid in her ears had left her partially deaf so the doctor had to shout – really loudly – to her during ward rounds. "I'M AFRAID YOU HAVE CANCER," he bellowed, like Brian Blessed. "BUT IT'S THE GOOD KIND! THE BEST TYPE TO HAVE." It was ridiculous.

Then came the chemo. After a series of treatments, Mum's hair began to fall out in clumps until she was left with a single section at the very back that was as long as a ruler. She looked like Tong-Po in Kickboxer. Mum co-opted my sisters and I into transforming her remaining hair into a makeshift fringe, though, by pulling it over the rest of her (very bald) head and "setting" it over her eyebrow-less forehead. It was spiky and peeped out from under her headscarf, like a curious tarantula, but none of us had the heart to tell her. I'll never forget her face when she asked us if she looked OK. We lied. And we laughed. It didn't matter – she felt better.

Later, my younger sister convinced Mum to let her cut the remaining strands of hair off with a pair of kitchen scissors. It was a disturbing moment and one that my sister is still haunted by. By this point, Mum's eyes had become like those of a small child; shiny, nervous, searching for security and validation. My sister became her parent, soothing her with kind words and preparing anything she wanted to eat at the drop of a hat, cleansing her face for her while she laid in bed and listening to her talk about God, the meaning of life and the clarity that cancer forces upon its unwilling hosts. Then Mum would ask her if her arms looked fat, demand buttered teacakes and end up nodding off mid-sentence, releasing a steady stream of trapped, ill wind as she snoozed.

My old dad refused to believe that my mum could possibly have cancer and lived in a perpetual fog of denial. He stopped wearing dress shirts (his uniform, basically), opting for comfier T-shirts with slogans across the chest. My mum was too tired to help him shop so, one day, he showed up to Friday prayers at the mosque wearing a T-shirt he'd bought of his own volition that said, "Una cerveza por favor". He had absolutely no idea what it meant, much like the other top he'd bought that featured an illustration of Holland's scenic countryside and the words "wind factory". He pretty much turned into a toddler who'd been given the freedom to choose his outfit for pre-school for the first time and speedily put on a sparkly bikini, a pair of frog wellies and a Rasta hat.

It was funny. Really, really funny. But desperately sad, too. We knew that, deep down, the poor sod had stopped caring about clothing after realising that the woman he had spent the last 40 years trying to impress might not be around to be impressed any more.

As the first winter approached, Mum had to wear a beanie hat under her hooded coat to keep her hairless head warm. She walked the streets of Bradford like an exhausted thug in a shalwar kameez. Dad would take her out in the car for cancer-friendly dates where he'd roll up outside an Asian bakery and buy her a hot naan that had just come out of the tandoor. It was the only thing she wanted to eat, so he would sit with her as they munched on hot flatbreads talking about anything but cancer. All the while, my pensioner father would be wearing a flat cap, spectacles and an XL T-shirt with an image of Al Pacino and a gun printed on the front. They didn't have the foggiest about how utterly, unfathomably absurd they looked, and that's what made it so beautiful.

Then there was Edna, the woman my mum shared a room with at the hospital, who kept putting her oxygen tube up her arse. She was clearly delirious and never had any visitors. The nurse would return every few hours to retrieve the tube, saying, "Oh Edna! Where's that tube? Is it up your bum again?" I'll always remember Edna for making my mum laugh, albeit inadvertently, and the tenderness of the nurses who never seemed to run out of kindness, care and humour.

Cancer is a savage disease that, once it's left the starting blocks, doesn't want to give up. At every turn, it's trying to give you the finger, saying, "Up yours! Not done with you yet, you bastard," but the way that sufferers and survivors handle their treatment is a testament to the fortitude of the human spirit. Cancer will stop winning one day, it will. But you have to match its stubbornness with humour and silliness wherever you can, with whoever you can. Even if hope is thin and even if you feel guilty doing it. Because if you're not laughing, you'll be bawling. Trust me, it's one of the only ways to cope.

@javaria_akbar

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