It’s Not Like That, Actually: A memoir of surviving cancer and beyond

by Kate Carr
Pub. Vermilion 2004
Review by Anand Chetan

It’s the unsettling title that stayed with me throughout the reading of this brutally honest account of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent lengthy and scarcely bearable treatment. It’s both a rebuke and a challenge to the attitudes and clichés that the rest of us, fortunate enough not to have been there, take comfort in.

‘Look at you now, everyone says, frolicking in the sunshine with your golden children. You must wake up every morning full of joy, so glad to be alive. I wish.’
Ouch – our well-meant sympathy and encouragement might just be a blanket we are happy to wrap the patient in to muffle their silent screams of ‘please try and meet me in the place I now am.’
Kate Carr is clear the reality of surviving is waking every morning, ‘waiting, wondering’ – will it come back? She is not only a cancer survivor but also a survivor of ‘the shedloads of absolute rubbish that is talked about the experience of cancer which has made my journey harder than it needed to be.’ Even fellow cancer sufferers don’t escape her determination to strip away the refuge of well concealed denial.

‘I have never understood people who claim that their cancer is the best thing that has happened to them. What on earth were their lives like before? These triumph-over-tragedy types often write books, high as kites on their ability to get through their harrowing treatment, confessing their new-found appreciation of their wife, children, friends, cats, trees, whatever, and their determination to create a new and more meaningful life now that they have realised What Really Matters. I have some of these triumphal books on my shelves. The trouble is that the authors are, almost without exception, now dead’.

Kate Carr was a successful journalist and, in her words, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘incredibly organized.’ She brings those qualities to the issues a cancer patient inevitably encounters – the diets, the self-help books, the reactions of others, the ongoing treatment decisions – and modern spirituality: ‘I was briefly waylaid by The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, finding solace in its acceptance of death, but I abandoned it at the first mention of reincarnation.’ While not drawn to religion she found in therapy a painful but rewarding path of self examination and understanding. She worked with anger, the sense of unfairness and the realisation that the patterns of behaviour which had made her former life so successful – effort, control, action – were ‘completely useless as a way of understanding a complex experience like having cancer.’

‘One of the themes’ she writes ‘that I have come back to over and over again in my therapy is the fear of death; mine and everybody else’s. The fear is so great that it cannot,must not be discussed. Whenever I have tried, the subject is changed. Some people can listen for a while, then pass the buck, offering some quick fix – aromatherapy, yoga, crystals. Anything but connect. Those who do seem almost like another – I would say superior – species.’ There surely can’t be a more heartfelt plea than this for the growth of ventures such as the Osho Sammasati project.

Her pragmatism grounds and sustains her when she is faced with the most difficult decisions. She has to accept the likelihood that at some time her children will be motherless and she needs to plan for their continued upbringing. Her discussion, not only of the practical issues but her guilt at being unable to will herself to stay alive for them, and her belief that her diagnosis has ruined their lives, is particularly painful reading. Indeed there is much painful reading in this book, but it is part of a valuable and necessary sharing – as that title forewarns.
(Anand Chetan)

Buy the book: It’s Not Like That, Actually: A memoir of surviving cancer and beyond

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