John vs. Cancer #1: Not Having Cancer

***In which our hero doesn’t, and then maybe does, and then definitely does have cancer. Just so we’re clear.***
“John, I think you’ve got blood cancer.”

“Fuck off.”

“I just really think you should go to the GP. There’s that rash on your leg, and you keep having nosebleeds, and you’re always tired and-”

“Fuck off. You’re a hypochondriac. What’s worse, you’re being a hypochondriac at me. This is basically Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy. Fuck off.”


“Fuck off.”

The awkward thing about spending two months telling your girlfriend that she’s an idiot for Google-diagnosing you with leukaemia, of course, is when she turns out to be very nearly correct. Ought I to regret, to recant the conversation above and the dozens like it, or is it just inevitable that one nervy partner in a million will accurately call a cancer diagnosis eight weeks before a doctor appears on the scene? I’m more inclined to chalk it up to extremely long odds than insist she does an AMA on how she can smell aberrant cell division, but perhaps that’s just bias. After all, coming to terms with long odds has been very much the order of the day of late.

When I finally went to see my GP, thirteen days ago, I’d been quietly dying of cancer for about three or four months. I hadn’t noticed, because the progressive destruction of my bone marrow began more or less as I started a new job in magazine publishing, which often feels like that anyway. After two years of working from home, the second as an almost entirely idle freelancer, I was suddenly spending 45 solid hours a week in the office and catching a rush hour Tube for the first time since 2011, plus getting up at 5 whenever I could think of something fun to write. Of course I was exhausted. Of course I was getting nosebleeds, and headaches, and weird shadows in the corner of my left eye. Having a job is dreadful. (It’s not, of course. Having a job is just the ticket, except when you’re dying, when it becomes dreadful by virtue of being ‘a thing to do that isn’t lie in bed and whimper’.)

Sometime around the start of the nosebleeds, my long-suffering girlfriend Ella started mentioning leukaemia. The first time it came up, I eventually discovered that her period was a day late and her concern was not so much that I’d die of cancer but that she’d have to raise a fatherless child alone once I did so, which maybe gives you some context re: her capacity to worry about utter bollocks. It certainly wasn’t worrying me. I’ve always been prone to bruises, always at risk of nosebleeds when things are stressful – not sickly by any means, but a bit full of blood. My dad had haemochromatosis, one of the very few diseases for which bloodletting remains the most effective treatment (aren’t you thrilled that there are still some left?), and I’ve got a bundle of the same weird genetic markers – not enough for a diagnosis, but more than enough to keep my cheeks and handkerchiefs regularly topped up with vermilion.

This was the point at which I arguably started to ignore the evidence. I developed weird rashes on both my shins, purply masses that looked like rows and rows of ruptured blood vessels. The Internet called them petechiae and said they were a possible symptom of blood disorders. I decided they were because I had to wear trousers all the time (fucking job again) and there wasn’t any proper aircon in the office. Then I started getting such bad night sweats I had to sleep on a towel and change it at 3am before it could get the mattress wet. I dug out the fan I bought last summer and clocked it up to my usual boom and bust weight routine getting out of sync – normally I try to save being fat for winter, but this year it didn’t work out.

Then Ella and I went on holiday with her entire extended family, and I spent almost every day of it throwing up – sometimes so badly that I’d spontaneously develop more petechiae on my face during the twenty seconds or so I was actually retching. I grimaced at the offensively healthy-looking mountains, swore off booze and crawled into bed for the week, spending more time in my room than I really wanted to because I didn’t want anyone to notice how hard it was for me to manage the stairs. Ella’s grandparents, both pushing seventy, made it to South Base Camp a couple of years ago – they do not fuck about – and the last thing I wanted was to appear as pathetic as I felt.

By the end of the week I’d lost half a stone, passed on dozens of meals that would normally have had me weak at the knees and substantially bolstered my reputation as the lazy boyfriend who didn’t like hiking or joining in. But, thank Christ, it seemed I was going to leave the bug in Scotland, along with the weird yellowish water and the complete lack of WiFi. I got home intact, spent one day at work trying to make sense of an article about tax avoidance, and promptly started throwing up again.

I hadn’t seen my GP for three and a half years – in fact, I hadn’t spoken to a doctor since I discharged myself from a mental hospital in early 2012 (see many, many self-indulgent columns passim) – and I wasn’t keen to break the streak, but I really did need to get this article done and vomiting wasn’t going to do anything for my prose. So I choked down a Berocca, registered with the surgery up the road and secured a ‘new patient checkup’ for the following Wednesday evening, with a vague recommendation to pop to the out-of-hours clinic over the weekend if I still felt rough. I did, so I did, but they aren’t allowed to prescribe anything so I went home again.

By Monday, I was so desperate to work that I’d have cut my legs off and used them as paddles if only I had a canoe and a creek and all the other things this analogy is somehow lacking. Alas, a brand new office meant that my commute had shifted from the air-conned and reasonably salubrious Hammersmith and City line to the steaming green shit serpent that is the District, and after one rush hour trip spent standing in the last carriage I was barely conscious. My boss sent me home comfortably within five minutes of my arrival at work, and I crawled into bed with just enough wherewithal to call my new GP and beg for a telephone consultation the next day.

On Tuesday morning, the doc duly rang and, to my surprise, asked me to come in as soon as I could manage. I expected to be written up for some anti-emetics and sent home, perhaps with a salutary warning about being fat and stressed when it’s hot. I did not expect my GP to palpate my liver, write me a note to bypass the queue at A&E and call me a cab there herself. Neither did I expect to walk into A&E and be in a bed within fifteen minutes. I certainly didn’t expect to be seen by three doctors and then admitted to an urgent care ward. I hadn’t even taken a fucking book with me, and I generally take a book into the shower.

As I settled into my new bed and contemplated the plate of lamb bolognese, pasta shells and baked beans which my immediate predecessor had inexplicably chosen to order before (I hope) dying, a twitchy young registrar popped in and introduced himself. He was from the haemotology team, and he’d been scrambled because there was something amiss with my blood. They’d know more tomorrow.

“We’ll know more tomorrow,” as it turns out, is a deeply loaded phrase when used by a haemotologist, because what it actually means is “we’ll know more when I biopsy your bone marrow with this colossal syringe.” The technique is actually called a ‘punch biopsy’, and I just looked up the tool they used to do it, and now I wish I hadn’t. I had to be sedated eventually, but I’m told I carried on screaming under my breath. The registrar went away with his little tray of aspirated blood and chunks of bone marrow, and I decided I probably wouldn’t ever go to St John again, and that was that.

After a very long, very slow day spent staring blankly at Right Ho, Jeeves and slowly drawing up an armful of antibiotics, I decided to have a horrendous vomiting fit just in time for the haemotologist to come back and see me. It probably wasn’t the worst thing I could have done, because once a relative stranger has found you covered in blood, IV fluids and cottage pie on the floor of a hospital toilet there’s nowhere for the encounter to go but up. Even if, with the sort of nauseating neatness that you’d never write into a proper story, where it was going was here:

“John, I’m sorry to tell you that you have a cancer of the blood.”

“Fuck off.”
***NEXT TIME ON JOHN VS CANCER: The Move to Barts, Adventures in Blood Sugar and a Looming Diagnosis. Assuming, of course, that I stay alive long enough to write another column. You don’t get this sort of suspense on Comment is Free***
I’m going to keep writing these blogs until I die or get better, probably, and although I don’t really want to sell them (there’s a time and a place for editors), I do want to include a regular plug for Anthony Nolan, the charity that will hopefully save my life with a stem cell transplant some time in the future. I’ve written a thing about them over on JustGiving, and put in a button below to make it as unavoidable as possible. You can give them your spit and maybe save a life sometime down the line, or give them some cash and support the work they’re doing right now. Either way, if you don’t at least have a cursory read then I’ll know, and I’ll lie in my hospital bed wishing you were a better person.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!


34 thoughts on “John vs. Cancer #1: Not Having Cancer

  1. What an absolutely cracking writer you are. I’m going to go and read up on all your back issues, so to speak. As for the other thing: fuck it. Fuck it in the eye. x


  2. Anne Campbell says:

    Bloody marvellous piece of writing! Being told I had pancreatic cancer (when all I had was a slight yellow tinge to my eyeballs) had exactly the same WTF astonishment effect on me….


  3. Reblogged this on Absolutely certain, I think and commented:
    We’ve been down this path ourselves a few years ago, and this is more eloquent, articulate, funny and wise than I was capable of being when it was my husband diagnosed with blood cancer 15 years ago. John and Ella, thoughts with you, and will follow your story and your progress. And you should know that Iain is still here, fully healthy, after a bone marrow transplant organised through the fabulous Anthony Nolan Trust.


  4. We’ve been down this path ourselves a few years ago, and this is more eloquent, articulate, funny and wise than I was capable of being when it was my husband diagnosed with blood cancer 15 years ago. John and Ella, thoughts with you, and will follow your story and your progress. And you should know that Iain is still here, fully healthy, after a bone marrow transplant organised through the fabulous Anthony Nolan Trust.


  5. Marc Burrage says:

    Amazing blog. Keep fighting and writing. This is the kind of stuff that inspires people in many different ways.


  6. mrmarcburrage says:

    Amazing blog 😀 keep fighting and writing


  7. […] he actually went to his doctor  –  who had devastating news. As he described it on his own blog […]


  8. Anna Bradley says:

    Fantastic read, just poppin to Just Giving


  9. Mariche Chambers says:

    I came across your blog by accident on FB as a friend liked your justgiving link. I just thought i’d let you know i donated my son Seb’s umbillical cord to AN last Tuesday and we were told it would be used for immediate transfusion as it was so full of goodness (Seb even got a little “AN lifesaver t-shirt” for it!). Hopefully it will help someone like you kick this shitty disease in the nuts. Sending you best wishes. Have comfort that there are lots of strangers everywhere trying to help you win this battle.. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ché Feenie says:

    Awesome blog John and I have to admit to several LOL moments, forgive me! However, I feel that we are already connected as I now (and for the past 6 months) sleep in the bed you used to call your own at 90 Mayes Road. Stay focused, hilarious and full of fight … as for me, I’ll help in any way I can.


  11. Helen Plumb says:

    What a brilliant uplifting piece to read. Tough to remain so upbeat when you’re shocked out of your mind by the diagnosis. I went through this 6 years ago, and I hope it gives you some reassurance to know that I had a stem cell transplant and I’m amazingly fit and healthy today. I will keep following your blog – stay positive, and may the force be with you!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m just going to sign up to give some of my spit away and then I’m going to make as many people as I can do the same or they will get a punch in the tit.


  13. […] John vs. Cancer #1: Not Having Cancer. […]


  14. Ducky says:

    This reminds me so much of an episode 15 years ago when I was about to move house, one Friday. M, the friend who was helping me move, had a routine breast scan on the Monday. Results Tuesday and it was bad news. I dropped by Wednesday and received the double whammy – ‘I’ve got cancer AND you’ll have to move house on your own’. She went into hospital on the Thursday and we spent the evening of the day before I was moving in a Pizza Hut just round the corner from St Mary’s, eating ice cream and taking our minds off things. Friday she was operated on and I was moving so I didn’t see her. Saturday and Sunday I spent sitting on the ward with a pile of magazines and Scrabble.

    She got through it: so will you and Ella.


  15. Sally Harris says:

    That’s the shittiest thing I’ve heard today. And the best piece of writing I’ve read in ages. Keep telling it to fuck off John. I want to keep reading your work for many more years. Thoughts with you and Ella xx


  16. Danielle says:

    I google diagnosed my little boy with having diabetes. Sometimes access to the right information can be life saving. Also, listen when a woman has a “feeling” about something. Sometimes we are right!


  17. Eli Andersen says:

    John, what an utterly shit thing to happen. Sending all the love and gob to you and Anthony Nolan (you can have the love, they can have the dribble). Also reallocating my daily Good Thought allowance to you and Ella until this gets shown the door. Stay strong x


  18. :) says:

    You are brilliant and so is your girlfriend . And All the fund raising you’ve done for this and the food bank thing you did was great .


  19. Ang.B says:

    Just WOW. Thank you for sharing. Congratulations on raising awareness and fundraising. Can’t pretend to understand what you are going through. May your BLOG and humour help you. X


  20. Rachel says:

    I hope they can cure you. Keep fighting, keep writing, you’re an inspiration that needs to be read.


  21. Emma.W says:

    Amazing post. I donated stem cells In March. I really hope Anthony Nolan can come through for you too! X


  22. welly989 says:

    Amazing blog, I donated stem cells in March, I hope Anthony Nolan can come through for you too. Keep fighting! X


  23. Belle365 says:

    Fantastic blog. Keep up the humour and don’t you dare stop fighting that bastard cancer, not even for a moment. GOOD LUCK x


  24. Belle365 says:

    Reblogged this on Belle 365 and commented:
    I’m quite simply in awe of this incredible human being. What a brave, funny and talented guy (not to mention superstar fundraiser). Get well soon John. You CAN beat the cancer. x


  25. Andy says:

    Great blog John.

    Reading it reminded me of my own denial of my symptoms prior to my own diagnosis with leukaemia back in 2003. Several bone marrow harvests, chemo, radiotherapy and a bone marrow transplant later, I’m in remission and making the most out of my second chance at life:

    I’m now working for the charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research as part of their patient services team. I imagine you’ve already been bombarded with information and you seem like you’ve got a great support system behind you which is fantastic. However if you ever feel like you need any additional info or want to get in touch with others affected by blood cancer please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

    Our patient support section is a great starting point:

    Looking forward to reading your blog updates which are fantastic and will be really helpful at raising awareness and helping others who are currently going through treatment.



  26. Stacey says:

    Hi John! I’ve been on the AN register 11 years and i’ve just donated to your Just Giving page because you are a truly amazing person. Your honest words have touched and inspired so many people. I believe that AN will find you a match and I believe you can beat this. Keep us updated on your progress and tell that girl of yours to keep smiling that beautiful smile of hers too. She’s a keeper John. ❤


  27. […] ***Previously on John vs. Cancer: our unwittingly malignant hero has spent two months ignoring his symptoms, his girlfriend and his common sense on the basis that being alive is enough to make anyone feel like dying. He’s now ensconced in ward 11F (F for ‘fucking hospital’) of the London, having a very dispiriting chat with his doctor. Curtain up.***   “John, I’m sorry to tell you that you have a cancer of the blood.” […]


  28. sparrow says:

    I was diagnosed with lymphoma when my son was 6 weeks old. He was trying to breastfeed when they told me. Wish I had told them to ‘fuck off’. Son is now a big hairy teenager


  29. I was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2008 finished treatment 2009 and now 6 years in remossion. All my best wishes John x


  30. Karina says:

    Great writing and best wishes! Go John!


  31. John Lort says:

    Spent a couple of months with chronic back a day chest pain doctor didn’t know why eventually developed anemia went to Nottingham City Hospital haeotology unit almost passed out on their floor they said come back tomorrow for blood transplant and bone marrow biopsy that was on a Friday on the Monday got a call come in and bring an overnight bag… six weeks later I escaped… Welcome to the wonderful world of acute lymphoblastic leukemia… had SCT early April


  32. Glyn Vaughan says:

    Reading that was just like reliving my first months before treatment great writing


  33. MisslondonW2 says:

    Stay in the ring. My father fought this disease, I remember his pain and still feel my own. He was much older than you and one day he simply had enough and left his mind and body behind. It was his decision so I loved and supported him. I am so taken with your balls and sheer brass neck. Fight because I know for sure this battle begins and ends in the mind.


  34. MisslondonW2 says:

    Stay in the ring. My father fought this disease, I remember his pain and still feel my own. He was much older than you and one day he simply had enough and left his mind and body behind. It was his decision so I loved and supported him. I am so taken with your balls and sheer brassneck. Fight because I know for sure this battle begins and ends in the mind.


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