Broadcaster and writer Bill Heine was diagnosed with leukaemia and given 12 to 18 months to live. This week he looks at the reaction his disease brings out in other people

WHEN you get cancer you become another person, maybe several – ‘victim’, ‘sufferer’, an ‘embarrassment’. Perhaps this is based on fear – they don’t want to know about the disease that is more likely than not to be the one which will lay them low, or they might not want to be part of the long goodbye that ends in death.

Most people make a genuine effort to reach out. The problem is most of them don’t know what to say or do, but then, neither does the person with cancer.

Do I hate my body, in particular my blood, because that’s the very thing that is killing me? No, that way is a lose-lose situation. I’ve decided to embrace the cancer, but at the same time to fight it head-on like you would do in a boxing match with an opponent you respect.

I remember my GP Ann MacPherson before she died a few years ago with pancreatic cancer saying: “Sometimes life just deals you a very bad hand.”

The cancer ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ stereotype has pretty much died the death. I haven’t come across too many who are angry on my behalf or simply befuddled and bemused.

Most people who want to treat the cancer person as ‘invisible’ have disappeared. Now almost everyone wants to engage, especially those in the medical profession. But if I come across anyone else with big round Bambi eyes who reached out to put a slightly moist hand on my arm and shoulder and asks softly “But how are you, Bill?”, I will go join a gym so I can let them know how many pounds I am bench-pressing this week and compare it to last week, so they can answer their own question.

The old ‘are you a player or are you a watcher’ question is well in evidence. People want to know if you are one of the actors ready to take to the stage and engage, or if you’ve decided to be part of the audience and watch from now on. The questions are leading and not so subtle: “Can we still count on you? Remember when? Would you still be up for that? I don’t want to add any pressure, but could you please..?”

I can understand why so many cancer people prefer to keep quiet about their disease, keep their heads down and withdraw or almost disappear, because they have to go over the same ground again and again each time they meet someone, and it’s very private terrain.

I’ve chosen to go public precisely to flag up questions like these so people can see there’s not much of a way forward or back. You just have to play your hand as best you can with skill, hope and a Mona Lisa smile.

You can even become the pet project of some members of the public. Currently I’ve been taken under the wing of a rough sleeper who spends his days on the streets of Summertown. One very cold, and from his look, not very successful day, he took me aside this week and said: “You’ve got to beat this. One night go home and say to yourself – ‘I can win’. The next night say ‘I’ am going to win’. And on the third – ‘I will win’.”

The next night he shouted at me from across the street as I was getting into my car: “Remember AMP – attitude makes you positive.”

And this from a man who has spent the day ‘not quite begging’ on the streets of Oxford.

I do get the ‘heroic’ response when people tell me how brave I’m being. This one is not too difficult. I tell people I’ve been telling stories most of my life over the airwaves, in print and on TV, and I don’t know how to stop and can’t help it.

Generally I don’t get the verbal treatment, more the physical with lots of hugs. At one dinner party I thought the cook was going to throw me into the pot when she grabbed me around the neck, drilled into my eyes with hers and repeated over and over: “You’re going to beat this, you’ve just got to.”

One response was very simple – “Well, there’s really nothing to say, is there?” – and my friend and I raised a glass of wine to life.