There are so many personal accounts of cancer that Mike Marqusee initially resisted adding to them. But two years after his diagnosis with multiple myeloma, his fury at cutbacks and profiteering companies won out. And so we’re left with this short, sharp ode to the NHS.
Marqusee is particularly angry with the narrative that cancer patients should be ‘brave’. Focusing on an individual’s courage strengthens neoliberal assumptions and obscures the importance of caregivers and public health. The biggest threat to cancer patients is not individual weakness but privatisation. Subjugating healthcare to profit means more people dying in greater pain.
He also challenges the idea of ‘frontline staff’. Receiving his chemo doses relied on ‘receptionists, nurses, technicians, porters, pathologists, pharmacists, clerical assistances, cleaners, IT experts, supplies managers and doctors all performing tasks correctly and promptly. An NHS hospital is as co-ordinated as a symphony orchestra – and similarly vulnerable. Cutting staff causes errors and delays. There’s no slack in the system.
I attended the same haemoncology clinic as Marqusee, in the same hospital (Barts) in 2008. I don’t remember seeing him on the chemo ward but I wasn’t there for long. Marqusee had a far worse prognosis, received six years of intense treatment and was fortunate to reach remission. But his description of the assiduous care provided by Barts resonates – faults and all.
As does his fear of isolation and frustration that friends struggled to broach the subject of cancer. He’s not blaming people. A society that vaunts individual success and hates ‘losers’ does not have space for the ill, except when ‘our suffering can be sentimentally repackaged or recast as part of the neoliberal cult of “can do, will do”.’
At 104 pages, this is a quick read. There’s no conclusion to pull things together, though, leaving the ending a bit abrupt. But each chapter was previously published as an article, so it’s easy to dip in and out. Even a brief skim reminds the reader not to take quality free healthcare for granted. Marqusee and I are only alive today because of the NHS. If we don’t struggle for it, we’ll lose it.
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