We Norton children used to be ferried to Emsworth every six months or so to visit the dentist, a family friend who seldom spent more than a couple of minutes looking at our teeth or less than half an hour exchanging news and gossip. Although we didn’t all escape orthodontics (I had train tracks, removable braces, head gear and even bits of wire stuck to the back of my teeth when it was all over, the last bit of which was only removed when I came into hospital this time), our parents were always proud of the fact that none of us had fillings.
I’ve no idea whether my siblings have broken that run, but I did so earlier this year – and probably would have done so sooner had I been I bit more organised about sorting out dental care since I moved to London. It came as a real surprise to me, though, when the dentist told me that was what I needed, and I couldn’t help feeling I’d failed my parents in some way.
I soon convinced myself that the degeneration of some of my teeth was a natural event there was only a limited amount I could do to prevent – I’ve always been a dogged tooth-brusher; my dedication having amused anyone who has seen me brushing away for the full three minutes – and remembered that now I’m 31, not 14, so perhaps I’d been unrealistic in expecting to avoid fillings forever. It had just seemed to me that having been congratulated on avoiding them when I was younger, it was unlikely they were ever going to be necessary.
My initial diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and – to a lesser extent – the news of my relapse were similarly surprising. Although I’d had my fair share of knocks and minor ailments over the years, I would never have expected my body to be quite so aggressively invaded from within. It’s easy to assume you’re just going to breeze through life, getting a bit ill occasionally but getting over it just as quickly – there’s no reason to think otherwise, and only a devout hyphochondriac would spend any time worrying about the possibility of facing a life-threatening illness.
This was why when I was initially diagnosed, I hadn’t even considered that I might be seriously ill, despite the niggles, the low iron count and the moments of physical weakness that had presented themselves as symptoms. My father, on the other hand, had done a bit of research, so when we were told by the haematologist that I probably had leukaemia, he was far less taken aback than I was.
My mother’s fight with ovarian cancer had shown me that cancer was something that can happen to people you love and are close to, not just to thousands of strangers or distant acquaintances. Yet it still never seemed something that could happen to anyone I knew, at my age. The possibility only became real when it happened. I’m sure that’s the case with so many other things in life, but nothing could have prepared me for the biggest challenge of my life – and one over which I have limited control.
Now I’ve relapsed, the challenge is even bigger and tougher. Having been clear of leukaemia for five and a half years after I finished my initial treatment, and particularly having gone beyond the five-year milestone used for various statistics, I was merrily getting on with my life as if there were no chance of it returning. When it did, though, it was less of a shock than the news that I needed fillings, albeit somewhat more disheartening. But just as I decided it was okay to have fillings after all, and I just needed to have them put on and get on with life, I soon girded my loins and prepared for the new fight.
After all, however surprising are the challenges life throws at you, sometimes you just can’t avoid them.