The Beast in Residence: Writing after Cancer

Everyone knows that having cancer, or any serious illness, changes a person.

No shit, Sherlock.

But now that I’ve had cancer twice, I’ve been pondering how the experience has affected my writing.  My second course of chemotherapy for breast cancer ended five weeks ago.   I’ve begun to recover physically, and contemplate Book 2.  I can’t write yet, but I can think about writing.  And that, as you will see, is a fairly momentous statement.

My first bout of cancer was in 2009.  It came out of nowhere, with no family history or risk factors.  I found the lump myself, during dinner one night.  (Check yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. And then check again.)  A few years previously, I had written two contemporary women’s novels, the first of which was about a group of ladies who all had breast cancer (oh, the irony).  Neither was published.

During treatment—surgery, chemo, radiation—I clung tightly to my normal routine and kept my head down, waiting for it to be over.  I continued working in my publishing job, I socialised, and I kept singing in three local acapella groups.   All of these activities gave me great comfort and solace.  But I stopped writing.  Completely.   At first, I blamed the physical debilitation, but eventually I realised that it was more than that.  I had lost my facility with words.  I had lost the urge to tell stories, something which I had done since the age of six.  It was like they had excised the writing centre in my brain along with the tumour.  It was profound but unfixable, or so I thought, and resigned myself to it while I raced to embrace ‘normal life’ again.   I trained as a vocal leader and started a community choir. Music became my creative outlet.

And it isn’t until now, five years and another round of treatment later, that I have begun to understand why.

It takes an enormous amount of confidence to write—in yourself, in the value of your words, and the idea they will one day find an audience.  For me, it also requires confidence that there is a future, and that I will be part of it.  Writing is a long-term commitment, one that I couldn’t make any more.  Some writers, especially in later life, are comforted by the idea of a legacy that will outlive them.  That wasn’t true for me.  It seemed premature and, frankly, melodramatic for an unpublished author.

Having cancer did more than shake my confidence in the future.  Until the age of 46, I’d suffered no trauma on this scale before.  I had struggled, sure, had some tough years like everyone else approaching middle age, but nothing like this.  It felt like a betrayal from the universe, which had seemed pretty benign until then.  It made me doubt everything that I had assumed about my life.  If this could happen—with no warning, no reason, no medical explanation–what else was out there?

And yet ‘Summertime’ exists.  So what changed?

The answer is simple:  I found my story.

In 2010 I stumbled on the real events which inspired me to write ‘Summertime’.   For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt the glimmer of a stirring of something that I thought was gone forever.  Here was a story, a magnificent, tragic and—most perplexing of all—unknown story.  I felt compelled to be the one to tell it.  And my writing was different.  More serious, in a good way.  Like I had finally grown up.

And then the universe decided to show its dark side again.  In May this year, just a few months after the excitement of the publishing contracts, a routine mammogram detected another tumour, in exactly the same place as before.  The second time has been worse than the first, in terms of treatment and prognosis—and betrayal, because the treatment failed last time.  But that now seems like a mere squall in comparison.  This recurrence has been like a hurricane ripping through my life.

And yet, and yet…although I’ve still got a long way to go to recover physically, something is different this time.  Despite all the horrors of the past six months, the writing centre didn’t get ablated.  Of course, it helps enormously that I have wonderful support from the publishers of ‘Summertime’, and encouraging reactions from readers so far.

But it’s more than that. The ‘beast’ in the title of this post isn’t cancer.  That’s gone…we think…but no one can be sure.  The beast is the fear. Some days it whispers, some days it shouts.  I now see that writing is my way of shouting back: I’M STILL HERE!

This post is the first serious thing that I’ve tried to write since my diagnosis in May.  The wheels are creaky, but they are turning.

‘Summertime’ is titled ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ in the US (June 2015), and ‘Sommerstorm’ in Norway (Feb 2015).  Other editions will appear in Germany, Holland, Italy, and France.




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16 thoughts on “The Beast in Residence: Writing after Cancer

  1. Melanie King

    Thank you for sharing your heartfelt experiences with such openness and honesty. You write with such beautiful eloquence which touched a deep chord with me emotionally. It would be interesting to explore how our creativity is affected from a psychological and neuropsychological perspective when we are faced with adversity. When I was recovering from surgery this summer I had planned to spend the time being creative but found I only had the energy to look after my physical and emotional needs and there wasn’t much capacity left for my creativity.

  2. Melanie King

    I only know the basics of neuropsychology. I am seeing a neuropsychologist friend of mine in a few days who is also very creative so will chat to her about it.

  3. Vicki G

    I truly believe that adversity can make us more creative, that it makes us appreciate the beauty in our world (whatever forms that beauty and that world may take) and that it can spur us on to find outlets to enable us to celebrate our place within that world.

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Vicki. It occurs to me that, in some ways, trauma for us is similar to what happens when you prune a plant hard. The plant thinks it’s going to die, so it suddenly grows and flowers.

  4. Vicki G

    During my treatment, the physical world which I encountered shrunk hugely. During that cold winter I spent much of my time in our dining room, the warmest room in our home. Thence I noticed the glorious beauty of the outlines of the bare trees in the neighbouring garden against the stark winter skies. I’d lived here for many years and never ‘seen’ this. Maybe temporary enforced physical inactivity gives us that time to “stand and stare” and this can, provide a positive, albeit perhaps subliminal inspiration for creativity?

    1. That is really true, Vicki. Especially for those of us who tend to hare around like we’re on fire a lot of the time. After cancer the first time, I felt in a hurry to do everything, on the basis that I didn’t know how much time was left. I got a lot done, but missed a lot of the detail that you’re talking about. I’ve been forced to slow right down this time, which has been frustrating but also illuminating, as much for relationships as for noticing things around me. Some people who I counted as good friends have stayed away. Others who I barely knew before have become more important to me. It’s given me lots to think about. xx


    Thanks for writing this – I only stumbled across the link by accident on Twitter and I’d like to comment in so many ways that I’m in danger of a comment longer than the original post.

    First of all – and most importantly – I hope that everything goes well with your health. Secondly, I absolutely hope that your writing returns to you. Not being able to write is the thing that scares me the most – it defines me every bit as much as being right handed or having brown eyes. Even when we go on holiday I’ll sit by the pool writing and in the same way that my Mum (before she died) was determined to stay in her own home and keep her mental faculties, so I’m determined – one day – to go out writing.

    I can’t even think, therefore, how losing the will to write and to tell stories must have affected you. Here’s hoping your wheels now continue to turn, ever more quickly.

    And as above, thanks for sharing the story. Hopefully plenty of people will read it and it will inspire someone to write. Life is too short to spend it doing anything other than what you really want to do and hopefully someone will read this post and realise they should be writing.

    Thanks again for sharing this. Lots of luck in the future – and a very happy New Year.

    1. You’re welcome, Mark. I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. This is what I hoped would happen, that even people who I didn’t know would find something to engage with. The urge to write is coming back, as the treatment recedes into the past, which is good because I owe the publisher another book! It sounds to me like you will get your wish, and when they close the box you’ll still be asking for one more edit. 🙂 People’s creativity is so individual. I have to be in a particular state of mind to write: calm but not tired, without too many other things in my head. Once I start, and it’s going well, it’s very hard to stop – for anything.


        Absolutely. When you have that perfect moment and words are appearing on your screen almost by magic you simply can’t/won’t stop. Doesn’t happen to me very often (I don’t really believe in inspiration) but when it does I refuse meals, miss TV programmes, stay awake…
        And you’re right – “What do you mean it’s my time? I need to change that comma to a semi-colon…”

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