Cancer is a fucker. I’m not sure anyone who has come into contact with the disease would dispute that. It is harrowing and life-changing and you need the strength and stamina of an ox to drag you through each day.
There is also a side to a cancer diagnosis, particularly at stage 4, that is less openly discussed; a deep inner shift that awakens an appreciation of everything as if you are experiencing it for the first/last time, from the taste of coffee in the morning to watching reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm again and again. You want to message everyone you have ever known telling them that you love them and the minute details of the impact they have had on your life. This constant tussle between intense love and fear is exhausting so there is also a lot of sleep involved.
This isn’t the first time that cancer has appeared on our horizon.
In 2007, I am sitting alone on the edge of a mountain in Spain overlooking miles of olive groves. Behind me is Space Mountain Studios, owned by the producer Youth and Greg’s band Delays are here to record their third album. It is far too hot for my cloudy English tendencies and I’m thinking about that I might have cervical cancer and no one else knows, including Greg.
The test results had come back unclear so were to be done again. “Could be anything” the nurse told me, “abnormal cells, an infection…cervical cancer…”
I don’t think Youth is happy the girlfriends are here to visit. Our arrival has burst the bubble he has created and is providing too much distraction, everyone now wants to play instead of work. To claw back some control, he sets Greg a songwriting challenge – to write and record a new track on his own in four days. This is not the time to put this enormous hulk of mental anguish on him.
I am too freaked out to swim in the pool or go to the beach with the others so while Greg works in isolation on the new song, I sit outside the studio windows out of sight on the edge of the mountain overlooking the olives, just to be close. I’m only a few feet away but I’m not sure I have ever felt more distant from him.
Eventually, I snap and tell Greg about the tests, my brain feels like it will explode with the weight of such a heavy secret. I feel guilty for breaking when he has such a lot of pressure on him from all directions to make the album. He is shocked, but just vocalising it out loud seems to pop the immense power it has.
In the evenings, our time is very relaxed – we find a stray dog and name him Lewis, we meet members of the Magic Circle who show us tricks, the chef cooks lots of fresh fish, we walk around the olive groves that vibrate with a billion bees.
On the last day of my visit, I go to take up my position outside the studio window again and as I leave, Greg whispers to me “listen to the words, I’ve got something to tell you myself”. When he is writing songs, Greg will often write the music first and hum the melody of the lyrics to fill in later. I had heard the new track being played out across the mountains as I had secretly hidden but it wasn’t until now that Greg used the final lyrics, singing them out to me:
No pictures, no stories, no days on the beach could compete with us now,
Nothing can compare to us beneath the weather
The scale of the mountain range and the fear inside me dissolve and for those few minutes, Greg and I are as close as we have ever been. Love is as expansive as the Sierra Nevada in front of me.
I didn’t have cervical cancer but for a while, I knew what it felt like to have your whole world ripped apart. Since November, that feeling is now part of our everyday life. Cancer is an unwelcome guest living in our house and it will not be leaving anytime soon. To be in its company is to be forcibly strapped onto a roller coaster to experience the full wealth of human emotions minute to minute – I’m terrified and desperately sad and furious and jealous whilst also feeling grateful, even joyful and more alive than I ever have.
This isn’t a cancer story. It can’t be because primarily, it’s a love story. It’s about two people who choose to be with one another each day and bumble around doing the things they love – watching Most Haunted, listening to Hulk Hogan’s theme tune whilst driving to the sea, meditating in bed, drinking tea, talking about art, wrestling with the babies. Nothing can compare to us beneath the weather.