- Explain the unlikeliness of it to people. Explain it away: the lack of anyone in our big Irish family who has had cancer, the way Mum only needs two beers to get drunk and tends to stop there, the fact she has never smoked and is a healthy weight and once got told by a psychic that she would live a charmed life. Build on the charmed life part. Don’t say it out loud, but let it be understood: things like this don’t happen to people like us.
- Be good. People say things happen for a reason, and although you don’t believe that, you used to have to think ‘be safe be safe be safe’ when a cyclist rode past on the road, or else they’d instantly crash and die. Goodness could be some karmic cure that eventually circles around – why take the risk when this particular alternative therapy is free? Be kinder than usual to strangers, friends, family. Try harder at work. When faced with binary choices, choose the one that’s harder and better for other people
- Present gifts at the alter of cancer. Buy a fistful of true-life magazines for your mum to read when she feels too ill for a book. Sit on the train with chocolate and a jumper and a gigantic Pikachu teddy that your girlfriend found. It’s large enough to act as a sacrifice, and you like the weight in your bag. This step is hard. If you had more money, you could deliver a more effective treatment. As with many complementary medicines, this one costs.
- Find the right words. They’ve been dispersed by the protein-positive cells nested in your family; turns out those things act acidicly, burning away nuance and narrative. You try the stock phrases on for size, tasting the irony on them: be positive, you’re an inspiration, what a tragedy. They’re from My Sister’s Keeper, not your mum’s life, which is more like a gentle BBC sitcom with Olivia Coleman. If you can skewer cancer with words, you’ll control everything. Focus on the bits that aren’t on the Cancer Research information pages; go small. This is a long-term curative method. It is designed to chip away at the cancer part by part.
- Plan a self-sacrifice. There must be some measure that would show how much you want your mum to get better. So far, the world’s been mostly kind to you. If you demonstrate how much you want something, it usually happens. You run through some ideas: should you shave your hair? Do a skydive? What would be the thing that would most make your mother happy? Can you multiply it by ten? Run through your options. Pull them through your brain when you’re worried, as a threat to cancer, and a bit to yourself: this is what I will do.