Nick Duerden

Laughing in the face of cancer

Sylvia Patterson manages to bring much rackety humour to bear in her descriptions of the pain and indignity her treatment involves

Sylvia Patterson. [Suki Handa]

A much cited statistic of the modern era reminds us time and again that at some point in our lives one in two of us will get cancer. So routinely is this doled out that its repetition must surely have dulled the threat somewhat – until, of course, we become the one in the two.

When chemotherapy leads to virulent mouth ulcers, Patterson reaches for onomatopoeia: ‘Aieeoo’

In 2019, this statistic took on new emphasis for Sylvia Patterson. Then a 54-year-old pop music journalist clinging on for dear life in an industry going the way of the dodo, she discovered a curious leakage around her right nipple. Doctors confirmed Google’s scaremongering – breast cancer – then mollified her in the way doctors do, assuring her that its early detection was a good thing. Nevertheless, she was facing chemotherapy, and very likely a mastectomy.

That statistic, then, like the scars to follow, would mark her for life. In Same Old Girl, she dissects this new reality with an attention to detail she might once have afforded a cover feature with the Spice Girls. But, as with her first memoir, I’m Not With the Band, which detailed her 30 years at pop’s crumbling coalface, she brings much rackety humour to bear, despite the gravity of the subject: ‘My personal, bespoke, especially-for-you type of breast cancer is HER2 Positive, which sounds like a troubled trans-woman’s self-empowerment workshop.’ But within weeks, the funny threatens to desert her, as she enters more fully into the arena of the unwell:

Lying face down on the hospital bed, my breasts dangle like exhausted udders into specially moulded, bosom-shaped holes. There is no dignity in this ‘lark’, and humiliation, already, has become a way of life.

Much of this territory will, of course, be familiar to anyone even passingly au fait with the illness memoir, a genre that’s perpetually in vogue.

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