It is Monday June 12th 1995. My 28th birthday. I am a lost, directionless gambling addict doing a job that is eating up every inch of any soul I had left. Tomorrow I will be diagnosed with Stage 4 sclerosing Mediastinal Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma of the large cell type.
After the diagnosis, I was far too busy trying to live each moment to the full, just in case living didn’t last that long, to imagine that out there in the future might be a 48-year-old theatre director with a story to tell.
I am Raz Shaw.
My life had been going nowhere. Until I was diagnosed with cancer.
And cancer saved my life. That is not hyperbole. It is, as far as I am concerned, a fact.
I was given the all clear from cancer in March 1996. I stopped gambling for good in April 1996. Those two truths are directly related though it took me a long time to learn quite how much and for that matter how.
After a year away recuperating. I turned my back on the highly paid telesales job that had devoured me and re-assimilated myself into the world of theatre. Re-acquainted myself with the things about that world that made me feel real, and heard and alive. And now I am ready to tell my story.
Death and the Elephant’ is a non-fiction glimpse at my experiences living through and beyond a life-threatening illness. And a gambling addiction. Then and now I had/have no ability to take life too seriously. Even in the seemingly most extreme of times.
If you can’t laugh, you can’t live. It’s the only way to make it through.
So this a book that charts my fight with cancer and gambling through a prism of perspective and irreverence. Cancer and gambling are heavyweights. They put up a helluva fight. But my chin is not made of glass and though I was knocked down many times I kept getting up to continue the battle. I am hoping this synopsis holds the only boxing metaphor in the entirety of the book. In fact, if you pledge right now I personally guarantee no more such references.
This is my story. It’s also a universal one. It’s an honest, funny, sometimes raw, often inappropriate glimpse into the life of a young man dealing with a life threatening illness in the only way he knew how. By laughing in its face.
Ever since I was 11 years old I have vowed to keep a diary. I am 48 now. One day I am going to do it. It takes discipline and clarity plus the ability to be properly open and honest. On second thoughts, maybe it’s not for me! Twenty years ago, in the period I was ill, I didn’t keep an actual diary but I did process my thoughts in a periodical and methodical way. I think it helped me to experience the detail of the moment in the moment, however mad or hateful it was. Not to drift numbly through this experience, in other words, but to try to experience it to the max. After all, if I survive, I might end up writing a book about all this. Stranger things have happened. So whilst I didn’t write down the following chemo experiences at the time, it reads in my head as if I did so it’s only fair to share them with you in a first person, present tense 1995 kind of a way:
1) Today is Chemo day. I slept well last night. Like a child on Xmas eve. Excited about going to sleep in order to wake up to get his presents but with a knotted feeling of fear about the possibility of his presents being shit. Although I am not sure a seven year would have quite so much insight about his inner psychological make up.
2) Today is Chemo day. I try to open my eyes but they seem to be glued together. As I wrestle with my eyelids, I notice that I can’t really breathe. I have a granite bowling ball lodged in the back of my throat forcing down on me every time I try to open my larynx. My skin feels like it has turned itself inside out. My body is ganging up on me. I am lying in an Olympic pool of sweat.
3) Today is Chemo day. I might just lie here quite still forever. If I don’t move, try not to breathe and don’t try to open my eyes, all this might disappear. All this. Not just this. This now. But. ALL THIS. And up to now I have been dealing really well with all this.
I have a big re-write to do of the book. Big. But life is getting in the way. Who knew that renovating a flat could be so stressful and time consuming? Who knew that decisions about warm white spotlights versus cool white spotlights could be so paralysing. And if that wasn't bad enough, the Olympics came along. Distraction destruction. So I have alloted myself October and November to write the next…
It's been a month since I climbed aboard the good ship Unbound. And I'm pleased to report that the journey so far has been a good one.
Whoa! I am going to stop this cruise-ship/nautical metaphor right here. I know what I'm like. And so do a lot of you. We are just a few scribbles away from 'all you can eat buffet' references or 'swimming without a life-jacket' motifs or more likely, 'Brexit…
These people are helping to fund Death and the Elephant.