On remembering and forgetting. Or Cancer…

Last Sunday, the 4th of February, was the World Cancer Day. I don’t know how many of you have noticed, but if you are a regular user of Facebook or Instagram, you could not have missed it. You all receive those notifications, or “reminders”, as they call it, right? Remembering squeezed into a simple algorithm that acts as a God-like figure which tells you what to remember and what not to remember. Anniversaries, “happy friendship days” accompanied by haplessly cheezy messages…

I am sure some people find them helpful. Others, like me, hate them, trying to find efficient ways of turning them off for good – as you probably are already aware of, getting totally rid of them is not so straightforward. You turn off one; another pops up. You unfollow someone; it creeps back into your timeline via a “like” button pressed by one of your friends. Blocking is not an option either, for you can block people, but you cannot block Valentine’s Day, for instance. Or another important date that Facebook, the omniscient gate keeper of time and of our minds, thinks we “have to” remember.

But what is wrong with raising awareness with regard to cancer, I hear you ask. Nothing. Unless you are a cancer parent that is. If you are, cancer is your everyday reality. Equally, it is something you wish you could forget. I always think of French historian Ernest Renan’s fitting observation about nations when I see such reminders: “the essence of a nation is that all of its individual members have a great deal in common and also that they have forgotten many things … Every French citizen has forgotten St. Bartholomew’s Day and the thirteenth-century massacres in the Midi.” Cancer is the St. Bartholomew of those whose loved ones have to go through the ordeal of cancer.

I am of course aware that St. Bartholomew is a thing of the past whereas cancer is your present, your “here and now”. But the analogy is not too stretched, as cancer parents forget about the disease the moment their children go into remission. They never think it might come back; they deliberately make it a thing of the past; delete all traces of the suffering their loved ones had gone through to enjoy some sense of normalcy – however brief it may turn out to be.

If you do want to see what childhood cancer is like, however, and raise awareness, then I suggest you check and share the 4 year old Jessica Whelan’s Facebook page who passed away on 20 November 2016 after a two year battle with neuroblastoma. His father, a photographer, released the following picture when they were informed that Jessica had only a few weeks to live.

The black and white photograph went viral, leading some to question the appropriateness of making such an intimate moment public. Andy Whelan who had to face his own St. Bartholomew was unapologetic, and rightly so. His words are worth quoting in full (emphases mine):

“As a photographer it is important to capture the truth and the reality of a situation, too easy it becomes to capture the joy of life whilst discarding the torture that we see.

This is the hardest photograph I have ever made, it is in fact my own four year old daughter. A few days ago she was given what is most likely only a few weeks to live after a battle against cancer that has been waged for over twelve months. This photograph was made in a moment that we as parents could offer her no comfort, her pushing us away whilst she rode out this searing pain in solitude. This sadly, for us as a family, is not a sight that we see rarely. This is now a familiar sight that we see regularly through each day and night, its frequency now more often. This is the true face of cancer, my baby girls blood vessels protruding from beneath her skin, a solitary tear running down her cheek, her body stiffened and her face contorted in pain.

I could try and use a thousand words to describe this image that we as parents are confronted with on a daily basis but these words would fall short of truly depicting the sight we see. With this photo I do not mean to offend or upset, I do mean however to educate and shock those that see it in its context. Perhaps by seeing this photo people not in our position will be made aware of the darkness that is childhood cancer, perhaps these same people may be able to do something about it so that in the future no child has to suffer this pain, so that no parent has to bear witness to their own flesh and blood deteriorating daily.

The only apologies I offer are to those that know Jessica, I understand that this photo is hard to see and even harder to absorb. To those that do not know Jessica I offer no apologies, this is what cancer does to a child in their final weeks and days!!! Before her diagnosis I was one of those ignorant to the darkness of childhood cancer, not truly appreciating the hell that it brings. It would never happen to us! Now I give childhood cancer the respect it deserves, seeing too many children suffering this same fate and watching families torn apart.

If this photograph only serves as a purpose to make people think twice about this evil and put into perspective what it does to a child, then it has achieved its purpose. Research needs to be done, cures need to be found, too long now has this been allowed to happen.

Please I beg of you, as a heartbroken father, it is too late for my daughter, but childhood cancer needs to be cured. No family should have to go through this hell.”

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