There’s a moment in The C Word when Lisa Lynch (played to perfection by Sheridan Smith) is sitting in a restaurant, headscarf wrapped around her hairless head and baggy clothing masking her steroid-plumped body. On the finishing straight of a long and gruelling course of chemotherapy, she’s wishing she was invisible but instead the prying gaze of a nearby couple is locked on her. They’re whispering to one another and Lisa visibly shrinks from the unwanted attention.
But then something wonderful happens; they recognise her from her blog, Alright Tit, which Lisa started when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 aged just 28. A successful magazine editor and less than two years into her marriage to husband Pete, Lisa – like so many others – was suddenly thrown into a routine of scans, hospital appointments and treatments to rid her body of what she called “the bulls**t” and make the transition back from “the girl who has cancer” to merely “the girl”.
From a personal project to keep her family and friends up to date, Alright Tit quickly engaged an avid following. Refreshing, honest, witty and without a whiff of the self-help speak that characterises many other cancer blogs, Lisa told it just like it was – warts and all – but never without a dollop of her trademark humour. Her posts were always entertaining and, for many, a lifeline. That was certainly the case for the couple in the restaurant – “I can’t tell you what it’s done for us,” they gush – but Lisa was also that person for me.
I’ve never had cancer but it’s been an unwelcome presence in my family for the last 13 years. I’ve sat by hospital beds, braced myself for bad news and watched someone I love grapple with this terrible, terrible illness for half my life. And Lisa’s right – cancer is total and utter “bulls**t”.
I can’t pretend I’m capable of putting my experience into words the way Lisa did – I’ll leave that bit to her – but reading her account of her own battle with the disease was like a breath of fresh air. She talks of being “bald, bloated and blotchy” and “feeling like a museum exhibit”. She rages against everyone else who is “normal” and the well-meaning sympathisers who say all the wrong things.
Statistically we’ll all have our brush with the dreaded C word – be it us or our loved ones – but throughout my late teenage years Lisa’s words helped enormously. Tragically she’s no longer here to see the BBC’s adaptation of her 2010 book – The C Word – based on her blog. Three years after being declared “bulls**t-free”, it returned with a vengeance in her brain and bones – this time terminal.
“It’s taken my independence, our optimism and our hopes, and our tentative plans for the future,” she says to Pete, played by Paul Nicholls in the drama. “And everything it hasn’t taken, it one day will.”
It did, but Lisa lived to see the BBC commission the one-off drama – and she hand-picked Sheridan Smith to play her. The pair never met but struck up a friendship on Twitter and Smith skilfully brings to screen an unflinching account of Lisa’s battle, even shaving her head – “it’s the least I could do” – to portray the effects of her treatment.
The C Word is fairly harrowing – it’s cancer, it was always going to be – but it’s imbued with the lively candour of Lisa’s words. She worked closely with writer Nicole Taylor who has borrowed plenty from Alright Tit and the drama is the better for it as Smith’s voiceover guides us through her character’s various blog entries.
If Lisa’s account chimes with you, I urge you to go online and read the rest. Alright Tit is still there in its entirety with occasional new entries from the blog’s “custodians”. I hope Lisa can still help you as much as she helped me. The couple in the restaurant got the chance to meet her and express their gratitude – I wish I had too.
The C Word is on Sunday at 8:30pm on BBC1 – read Lisa’s blog Alright Tit here
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Read an extract from Lisa Lynch’s The C Word