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Heartbreaking cancer stories bring back memories of my sister and highlight how precious our time on earth really is

By Lindy McDowell

Published 23/11/2016

Calm valour: AA Gill revealed that he has the ‘Full English’ of cancer
Calm valour: AA Gill revealed that he has the ‘Full English’ of cancer

Two stories from the news in recent days have touched me deeply. One concerns the Sunday Times journalist AA Gill, a boy for whom I would not previously have had a lot of time.

Gill is a posh bloke who writes travel and food reviews for the paper. He's a great writer but I've always had the impression he's a bit up his own aspic. Anyway in his food column at the weekend he revealed that he has cancer.

"An embarrassment of cancer", is how he puts it, throwing in a little foodie terminology for emphasis - "the Full English".

It does sound bad, but Gill comes across as impressively philosophical about this dire hand that fate has dealt him: "I don't feel that I have been cheated of anything." (His doctor has told him, he says, that all men react the same way to diagnosis, they are always stoical.)

He does not like the term "fighting cancer". It seems to infer that people who die from the disease do not fight hard enough.

His quiet, calm valour is moving and commendable and enviable. I certainly would not have such courage.

There is hardly a family in the land whose lives have not been touched by cancer at some point. Just this week a dear friend of ours died from it. To the last he too was heroically accepting, thinking only of the adored wife he leaves behind.

My sister died from cancer when she was just turned 17. I was 18 at the time. She'd had to have her leg amputated at 16. But she seemed to be doing fine. My parents had taken her for a check-up to Altnagelvin Hospital. The doctor did some checks, told her everything was looking great.

Going out the door she assured him that she felt just grand "if it wasn't for this oul' stiffness in my back".

The doctor paused. "I think we'll do another quick X-ray..."

It was in her lungs.

No other death in my lifetime has marked me so much as hers. I think all the time of what she might have been and what she was denied. I agree with Mr Gill on the "fighting" front. If tears and prayers were medicine she'd be here still.

My mother tried everything. A Catholic friend brought her water from Lourdes. My Church of Ireland mother gratefully accepted it. People were so good.

But there was no miracle.

And so to that other story that touched me so much this week. The report from the courts about the case of the 14-year-old girl whose body had been transported to the airport, en route to a cryonics facility in America, in the back of someone's van.

The little girl's decision to have her body frozen in the hope that at some point in the future scientists will have the technology to bring her back to life has, heartbreakingly, divided her own parents.

Her father disagreed with her plans. But to the girl it was "a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years' time".

The court report highlights the gaps in UK law in regard to what many might see as a controversial if not quack science. A business that profits from that most human instinct - the desire to prolong life, our own or the lives of those we love. To me it just seems crackpot and cynical.

And the cryonic option isn't cheap - somewhere in the region of £50,000. But who could fault a little girl for clinging to the dream of a future resurrection, a chance to live the life of which she'd been cheated?

It will come to us all, of course. Those two great certainties, as the man put it. Death and taxes. Or as Freddie more melodically summed it up: "Who wants to live forever?

"It's all decided for us.

"This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us."

Long road to Brexit will put years on us all

Brexit means Brexit, said Theresa May. Although this week it transpires that what she actually meant by a quick Brexit is that we might still be in the EU years from now. Politicians, eh?

Mrs May has informed business leaders that she wants to avoid a “cliff edge” — in other words a sudden drop out of Europe. Instead, we’re apparently going to be going cannily enough down this particular slippery slope. Not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit then. But a gently-braking Brexit.

Book burnings next for ban-happy students?

Well done to students at London City University, who have passed a motion banning several national newspapers from campus. Some victory there for freedom of speech.

Apparently, the handful of concerned readers who passed the motion feel that the papers in question promote fascism and racial tension and hatred.

No mention of the Kardashians, who are even more heavily promoted by at least one of these publications. Next up for censure, presumably, books. A few bonfires should do it.

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