As strange as it sounds, there are a lot of funny moments in BBC1’s The Big C & Me, three hour-long films about living with cancer. When people receiving chemotherapy are warned of the “prickly bottom” induced by a particular steroid; when Yorkshireman Dominic decides that if he needs a mastectomy, he doesn’t fancy a general anaesthetic: “A bit of local, zip zap zop,” he tells his doctor, with a wink.
Because cancer is so much more than a sometimes terminal disease, to be discussed in hushed tones and met with cowed sympathy. And the people who live with it are more than patients, or sufferers; their lives are not tragic, or miserable. They, like the rest of us, are simply living.
This has been beautifully illustrated by The Big C & Me. All of the people we meet in the films are thoroughly ordinary, in the best human way; there’s a belly dancer, a painter and decorator, a trainee vicar, a student, a young boy, a new dad, a grandmother. One keeps pigeons, another has always wanted to go to the ballet. Some are nonchalant, almost impatient with their illness, some are defiant and fierce, and others are cool and businesslike.
What’s been so effective about the programmes is that each person is given the space, and time, and power to tell their own story, however they want to tell it. And their accounts show that cancer is simultaneously the smallest and biggest part of their lives; at once, it changes everything and nothing. Because though it may change your present, your everyday reality, it doesn’t change you.
As Victoria Derbyshire, who is undergoing cancer treatment herself, says in the voiceover, the disease doesn’t magically make someone a different person: “We’re not heroic, or brave, and when we start treatment, our bodies are not battlefields.”
And this is an essential lesson of The Big C & Me: if you are brave or resilient or stoic during cancer treatment, it’s because you were already those things – and if you are none of those things, that’s OK too. There’s no right way to cope, to continue; you just do.
One of the best parts of the films has been eavesdropping on the chats between those receiving treatment on a chemotherapy ward, where small talk takes on a different hue, where it is not only acceptable but almost compulsory to ask your neighbour what they’re in for. People swap prognoses with frankness and humour, and share the frustrations that come with such a laden diagnosis.
What we learn is that although there are some things those living with cancer have in common – an annoyance with being told to “think positive” comes up often – each experience is unique. There is no typical “cancer patient”, and no doubt there will be many who will watch the programme and will not recognise any of the portrayals of life with the disease. But none of the people we meet are speaking for anyone but themselves, and each account is as valid as the next.
Inevitably alongside the lighter moments there are confronting, difficult scenes: mum of five Sally saying goodbye to her youngest children before she leaves to have treatment that could save her life, or kill her. Mark, who is 33 and has stage-four bowel cancer, talking about his desperation to live long enough to see his two-year-old son start school.
These moments will be difficult to watch for the vast number of us who have lost someone to this disease. But arguably it would be unfair not to include them, because it is the reality for some. And, mostly, there is goodness to be found in The Big C & Me, because it’s not about loss, or death, which, as we know, is now far from inevitable after a cancer diagnosis. The films don’t dwell on the potential tragedy of it all; they celebrate life, and normality, and love.
The Big C & Me airs tonight at 9pm tonight [10:45pm in Scotland] on BBC1