Brothers In Arms: Personal Musings for World Cancer Day

It’s Time The Tale Were Told…
This is not a history story, it isn’t something that will be shared (although anyone who wishes to do so is welcome) or likely even read and, at the end of the day, I didn’t really want to write it – it is just something I have to do as a cathartic exercise, as a thank you to family, as a commemoration of 4 February (World Cancer Day) and in memory of my cousin Mickey Hall, who succumbed to the illness last month and to whose funeral I have just been.

This is a story of a personal experience: primarily it is about trying to get across to people what it is like to suffer with an illness like cancer – and the method I have chosen is, as ludicrous as it may seem, by drawing parallels between that of the soldier (of the First World War) and that of today’s cancer patient. Initially, to ask if there is in any kind of shared experiences between the two you would likely think not, but some may appreciate what I say regarding stress, anxiety and mental health and, to some degree, accept that we can share some experiences despite the lapse of time and the changing physical world around us.

In relating this, I hope it becomes clear as to why I have written some of what I have over the past few years about World War One. Wyrleyblog has, since its launch in April 2014, sought to tell stories about the First World War. Initially, these stories were about the soldiers whose names appear on the Great Wyrley gates (for the fallen) – and were aimed at telling the local community something about them as people and not just as soldiers. The Blog would, in time, encompass more.

Wyrley’s Hezekiah Henry ‘Harry’ Jones, aged 18/19. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The point I wanted to get over is that not only were these ‘names’ real people, but the world of a century ago was alien in so many ways: yes, I could walk down the same roads, see some of their houses and yes, I got married in the same church as Lt Theodore Bason, but I had never lived in a world before antibiotics and the NHS, I never thought of rampant infant mortality as simply normal, I never saw four men trapped in a cave-in at the Quinton Colliery as an occupational hazard, or where the lack of a Welfare State mean’t that the workhouse and Public Assistance Committee were the only thing that could stand between you and starvation.

Needless to say, when it came to these men going to war, I had even less to empathise with – I had never shot at someone, been shot at, jumped into a shell-hole, huddled at the bottom of a trench during a bombardment, burnt lice off my uniform with a candle, seen a festering corpse shattered by a shell or my mate next to me take one through the head.

For myself, as a general historian, I can understand these things, but as I have not experienced it myself then I cannot truly empathise; in the same way, I could only relay facts that I had discovered and the interpretation of those facts, emotional or otherwise, were left to the perception of the reader rather than their experience and true empathy.

Leaving a metal poppy badge – fittingly from Gt Wyrley British Legion – at the grave of Harry Griffiths at the Fort Pitt Military Cemetery, Chatham. 3 Feb 2016.

Things changed for me on 12 November 2015 when, at 48-years old, I was diagnosed with cancer (this will be the subject of a future article aimed at sharing my continuing experiences with other patients). While I am a pretty calm guy let’s just say the full diagnosis I received threw my life into serious jeopardy, and in consequence of that uncertainty my mind became a ‘nest of scorpions’ as I felt control being unceremoniously ripped from me.

Over some months with diagnosis, scans, operation, chemotherapy and oncology appointments, and while I am a positive guy, you do feel you are in a war zone and I began to appreciate if not the physical experiences of those men I wrote about then I could at least have some empathy with their emotional stresses.

This coincided with a story I started to investigate about a soldier whose grave was in a local churchyard but whose name didn’t appear on the memorial, however, I put the story aside when I discovered that he had taken his own life because of its sensitive nature.

Slowly, this started to gnaw at me: there is a public monument and understandable public sympathy for those soldiers ‘shot at dawn’ – many now having been pardoned because they are seen as victims – and these soldier’s stories have often used in TV documentaries to support this position (although their families at the time would have been mortified at this because of the stigma).

Shot at dawn memorial at the National Arboretum. (Harry Mitchell)

Sadly, nobody will champion the likes of Parnaby, the soldier that triggered this, and the thousands of men like him: we are too afraid to talk of issues like stress, depression and anxiety despite many suffering from these conditions – if we do discuss him, the convention seems to be to strip him of his identity and so dismiss his whole life due to the circumstances around the manner of his death. Well, if cancer gets me in the end, I don’t want to be remembered as just a cancer patient  – I had a damn good life before it and want to afford the same courtesy to men like Parnaby.

Anonymous grave markers, now divorced from their graves, at the Burntwood Asylum graveyard. 2016.

In November 2016, I wrote (badly, as ever) the first in a series of ongoing articles about ‘the dark side’ of the Cannock Chase military camps from WWI ( https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/driven-to-despair-the-cannock-chase-camps-in-wwi/driven-to-dispair-the-dark-side-of-the-cannock-chase-camps-part-1/ ) – which looked at the understanding of stress, anxiety and depression in society and the military at the time of the War.

This was followed up by stories on a soldier forced to abscond as his daughter lay at death’s door and a soldier who faced the uncertainty of a future without a leg ( https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/a-man-a-war-a-harp-and-a-monkey-the-frederick-wray-story/ ).

Part 2 of the Cannock Chase camps story highlighted the story of Private Davill, who would eventually die at the front, and his slipping away from camp simply to go home to his family and Private Greenwood, whose suicide may have been triggered by a medical operation ( https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/october-1915-january-1916-the-dark-side-of-the-cannock-chase-camps-part-2/ ). Part 3 (https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/february-march-1916-the-dark-side-of-the-cannock-chase-camps-part-3/ ) looked at three cases of where alcohol was seems to have been used by soldiers as a way of blanking out their situation and possibly as a vehicle to get themselves out of the war.

Hopefully by now you will understand why I have written about these men and seen some broad parallels, if not, I will distill some of my experiences and show where I feel I can empathise with some of the men in my articles. Let me reiterate though: we are talking general experiences here – each soldier’s war was their own, as each person’s cancer is their own.

Brothers In Arms
The broadest experience has been touched on, where we all complain that things get on top of us and we feel like we lose or have no control in our lives. No person seeks to become a cancer patient and once diagnosed you know your mortality is called into question and you follow a directed path in order to get out the other side. In short, you are conscripted to a war you have no wish to be involved in and which has the highest of stakes. I wonder how similar a feel it was for the lads pressured into, or later forced into joining-up?

Conscription to war and cancer – a similar experience?

The hardest thing I have had to do in my life was to inform my wife and children of my initial diagnosis; it must have been like a soldier telling his parents or his wife and family that he was called-up in 1916, when they all too aware of the casualty rates.

My fantastic family at Pompeii, just prior to my diagnosis – July 2015.

I was very lucky to have my family around me, the WWI soldier was ripped away from his: my research showed me how men suffered over this (resorting to absconding, drink and even suicide) and how they looked forward to receiving news from home. All I can say is that when I was being wheeled to theatre, as likely as those guys about to go over the top or that fell wounded, my thoughts turned to home.

Here is the point on family, though: it is them that suffer the most in my opinion. It is one thing to fight cancer yourself, it is more horrible to watch what it does to those around you – for despite in truth carrying you, they feel so helpless. I can only imagine how helpless family felt in WWI, although I can have some empathy with the strong emotion you feel, for the want of good news and the fear of bad, every time the post arrives.

This leads me onto another point. It is often said that ex-soldiers (particularly WWI) did not talk of their experiences when they came home (even to family), the assumption being that the guys wanted to forget about their experiences, however, in one more than one interview I have seen with a veterans they challenged this and what they said struck a chord with me and with my illness: they didn’t talk about it as people who had not experiencing it at first hand simply would not understand what they were going (or went) through, so there was no point in trying to tell them.

I think there may be other reasons. I didn’t tell a lot of people about my illness, I just told those that needed to know as I didn’t want sympathy, I wanted to make sure I was certain about what I was saying, I didn’t want to keep going over unpleasant things and it wasn’t most people’s business anyway. I did take exception with one friend, who knowing only part of my diagnosis, decided to tell me that he knew ‘exactly’ what I was experiencing and I was patronising him when I said that he didn’t know what I was going through – it put me in mind of a haunting line penned by a French soldier: ‘When we go home and tell them what we have seen, it will be us that are wrong’.

Again, I have seen more than one interview with veterans where they go as far as saying that this lack of understanding mean’t they couldn’t settle when they came home on leave as the real world to them was now the war zone. I think many cancer patients can empathise with this view; the same alien nature strikes you when you come out from the QE Hospital, where you have been one of hundreds that day getting vital chemotherapy for several hours, only to walk into Harrison’s Club and discuss vapid issues like how good Marston’s Pedigree used to be.

One common enough misconception is that soldiers spent most (if not all) of their time in the front line, which of course was not true. Indeed, one veteran said that when out of the line it was ‘almost possible to forget there was a war on’.  They didn’t of course. Similarly, when away from the hospital, I found it ‘almost possible to forget’: I say almost, as even putting all the physical stuff aside, when you turn on the TV (and some radio stations) you get the same cancer advert in every commercial break, while pub bars are filled with the collection tins for a plethora of cancer charities – all of which is great for fundraising and awareness, but it can get to you at times.

This leads me on to shell shock, today known as war neurosis or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shell shock was eventually recognised as a condition which was brought on by either intense or chronic exposure to ‘trauma’, and would manifest itself with emotional and physical symptoms. I can only imagine how soldiers hearts sank as they headed for another stint the front line and the nightmares that must have followed listening to the cries of those in pain after a swift bombardment, however, it may be similar to the feeling I have as I approach the hospital for another life determining scan and the unpleasant dreams I still have of the cries of my family when I presented them with the news of my diagnosis.

I suppose the image that best sums up the terror in most people’s minds of the First World War is that of soldiers in a trench, waiting for that whistle to go over the top. You can’t imagine the gut-wrenching fear in the pit of their stomachs, knowing they could be dead or maimed within seconds. There is a parallel here with cancer, although less instantaneous: that is if you can imagine sitting outside the oncologist’s room, waiting to be called in to receive some scan results that may determine life, death, an operation or course of chemotherapy.

This parallel will seem a little left of centre at this point, but I include it to show the mindset of people when faced with dark situations in the hope of their finding some comfort or support. I am not talking about having faith here, although I am sure many did turn to it I am sure, but superstition.

In WWI, many men carried charms and tokens to ward off death, while pilots painted symbols on their aeroplanes for example. For us, we all had different superstitions: my wife was terrified when we won a raffle once as she thought it would use up our luck, whereas my mother was sure my dad was looking down on me as I was diagnosed on what would have been his birthday and, for me, I needed to see, and salute, as many magpies as I could when heading to the hospital.

My magpie badge, my superstition

Some of those that returned from the front (and this is true of all wars of course) talk about survivor-guilt, that is simply the pangs of shame as their service may have been judged by others as a ‘softer’ option or guilt as they survived and so many did not. I am sure that some cancer patients could feel the same; what I feel is that I hate this disease even more when it takes the very young, as at least I have had 50 years of life now while they have had next to nothing.

The wounds a soldier could receive could be physical or emotional – and the same is true of course for cancer patients. After the war, there is more than an element of truth that in general many men that had shattered minds, facial disfigurements or lost limbs were a little shunned, like old war trophies in parks, by a society that really didn’t want to think about it anymore.

For myself, I used to get funny looks when using a disabled toilet as my wounds are invisible to most: I have been opened up a couple of times, been disconnected, reconnected, and nerve damage means I cannot feel much from my hands and feet. What this means is that I do not act as a reminder to anyone like some of the war boys did, but I believe, while people do give to cancer charities, most prefer, as I once did, to keep their head down, not to think about it and hope that it never comes near you.

Here is one thought: I wonder if everyone who currently suffers from the illness turned orange for a day, and those who will suffer sometime in their lives turned lime green, whether world governments would actually notice the staggering numbers and invest a little more. I would also like to point out that I am being selfish here and there are other scourges, like HIV/AIDS, that the same applies to.

It is time to bring these thoughts to a close, however, as I am a positive kind of guy I had to do it on the happiest of notes.

It seems strange to think that the War was actually not all bad. I have, again, read and watched interviews where many veterans talk of the special camaraderie in war and that when they were out of the line, or in a quiet period, that things ‘actually could be fun’. I think one of my favourite bands Harp and a Monkey sum it up in their ‘Banks of Green Willow’ – when they talk of three ragged soldiers reminiscing over the ‘best and the worst times of their lives’.

This is because you pull the positives out of everything, be it war or cancer.

I was completely taken aback when I first went on the ward to receive my first whack of chemotherapy just how positive many people were – and this became the norm. Indeed, you would see the same people and and a sort of camaraderie followed in the same way as the war boys. It is amazing how you can talk away about all kinds of things, as though you were sitting next to them at the Villa, while having some pretty toxic drugs flowing into you; you stop seeing that someone has no hair for example, as that is just visual and not what defines them. Truly, if you ever feel like you need to be inspired, you don’t need Superman and Wonder Woman – step through a cancer ward and come out twice the person.

Don’t think for one minute that having cancer hasn’t changed me in any way. I don’t and have never felt unlucky to have been diagnosed with the illness, that is simply a part of life, but I understand life more now than I have ever done, I understand love and the importance of family more than ever, and I now want to suck the marrow out of life and go and do things instead of putting it off. I don’t know what the future holds, but like Mickey Hall, I will try to face it with dignity and, more than anything, with my family.

In memory of Mick, whose dignity was an inspiration to me.

My thanks to:
Harp and a Monkey
Walsall Local History Centre
Harry Mitchell
and Lord Kitchener

My Love to:
Mrs Blog (Donna)
The Blogettes (Ellie and Lizzie)
Mom
Brother, Mark and Family
Lynn and Skip
JB
My amazing friends and incredible work colleagues
Needless to say – All at the Queen Elizabeth and Walsall Manor Hospitals

The people I wrote about, when my head needed distraction
and I am not being flippant when I say, for the same reason, Aston Villa FC