The days when cancer looms large

Some days, I can almost forget that I’ve had cancer. I’m busy. I have a novel coming out and I’m editing the next one. I am a mother to two children who are still young enough to be endlessly demanding. Last night, as he was supposed to be going to sleep, Joseph sat up in bed and asked me to make him a sword and shield out of paper. And Elodie has taken to standing in the kitchen, pointing at the cupboard where I keep snacks, or opening the fridge to point to the milk. They’re forever bringing me shoes to put on or turning my bed into a throne (I have no idea, but it involved moving all the pillows and the duvet cover) or asking me to make a den out of blankets and pegs. I run an online book club that has almost two thousand members, and it involves a lot of reading and a lot of emails. I have a husband, and a house, and a severely disabled sister. I’m too busy to think too much about cancer.

But sometimes, it looms large. Two weeks ago, a woman called Amy Mattingly died of bowel cancer. She was thirty-two. She was a Canadian living near Bath, who learned she had cancer after delivering her stillborn son, Leo. I never met Amy, but we talked on Twitter sometimes, and I marvelled at her from afar. She was so frank about her condition, and so funny. She did a lot to raise awareness. She organised charity walks and wore a gold cape to take part; she had a photoshoot done in which she wore only underwear and her ileostomy bag. Amy was the most alive person I’ve ever seen. And now she’s gone.

And today, I’ve read the stories of two women. One who died days after giving birth to her daughter. Another who has a tiny baby and has been given months to live. It’s hard, on hearing or reading these stories, not to feel overwhelmed. With sadness for these women and their families. With relief that I was so much luckier. With fear that their story could still be my story, in the future.

It’s strange that all this melancholy has come on such a beautifully sunny day. It’s been a long winter, and every time it seemed like it was ending, it came back. Like those trick candles that reignite every time you blow them out. Today, there’s no denying that spring is here. Nine years ago today, Paul and I got married in London on a day much like this. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Yesterday, I sent the first half of my second novel to my editor at Ipso Books. And today, I start editing the second half. I’m itching to get started after thinking about my main character for a long time. She’s come alive in my mind, and is starting to answer back when I tell her what I have planned for her. The trouble is, cancer is one of the big themes of the novel, and I feel like cancer is surrounding me, crushing me. I wonder whether my editor will read this blog post. I wonder whether she’ll see it as an elaborate way of excusing my lack of progress.

I wish that Amy could have seen this sudden and complete transition to spring. I feel sure that she would have opened up all the windows and put on some music and let the sunshine seep into her bones. She can’t do those things, but I can. So I will. And I will go back to my work in progress, because at least I’m in control of what happens in that. Cancer is scary, and it’s cruel, and it’s everywhere. But for now, at least, I don’t have it. And it doesn’t have me.

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