Don’t Write a Book About Cancer, and Other Advice
Shirley Barrett on Receiving a Cancer Diagnosis After Writing About It
Like everyone, I know about six people with breast cancer. In fact, I have breast cancer myself. It’s a strange feeling to be hosting a silent enemy within, a demon quietly beavering away at your demise. I’ve noticed that there’s a portion of victim-blaming that goes with cancer, perhaps more so than with other illnesses. You drank alcohol, you ate bacon, you got stressed at work—therefore you brought it upon yourself. Some religions believe that you have literally allowed the cancer demon entry—perhaps you unwittingly invited it. Seriously, you can’t win. It seemed to me good fodder for a horror story of sorts, so I wrote a book called The Bus on Thursday.
Well, no, that’s not quite how it happened. I wrote The Bus on Thursday before I got cancer, so I would put “don’t write a book about cancer” right up there with other government health guidelines, like how much alcohol you should consume if you don’t want to get cancer (none). Can writing a book about cancer give you cancer? Apparently! So that’s my first tip: don’t.
In fact, my heroine Eleanor in The Bus on Thursday is based loosely on my friend Kate. She was unlucky enough to get cancer as a young woman, and frankly she is very clear about it having fucked up her life big-time. Kate is very beautiful and very funny but having a mastectomy at age 29 was a disaster as far as she’s concerned. She hates it. She feels like damaged goods. Every time she likes a man well enough to want to take her top off, it’s fraught. But on the upside, 12 years on, it does seem to have totally got rid of her cancer.
Me, I was 55 when I got cancer, a year ago now. My first response was, okay, it’s my turn now. Also I felt relief that my daughters are in their twenties at least, so well on their way in life. At chemo, I would see young women with small children and think how awful that must be. Kate and I had a very dear friend called Jasmyne who died of cancer, with her three children under 12. That’s not fair.
Having cancer at my age is not so bad. Or perhaps I should say, having my sort of cancer at my age is not so bad. (Another qualifier: So far.) The chemo was easy. I didn’t get sick, although my hair fell out and my toes went numb. Head scarf-wise, I embraced the gypsy look. Basically, I presented as someone who might offer to read your Tarot cards for a small fee. Here’s another tip: striped t-shirts are out of the question. Immediately you combine a striped t-shirt with a head scarf, you become a pirate—there’s no way round it. Hooped ear-rings, forget about it.
Kate talked me into getting a wig, but I never wore it. It was a good wig, quite expensive, but I didn’t like the phoniness—the phoniness felt more tragic than gadding about like an aging fortune teller. Also, I live in Sydney which gets very humid. Wearing the wig felt like having a small wombat perched atop my head. Or possibly an echidna—it was kind of scratchy. Anyway, it’s lurking there still in my wardrobe, bursting out of its box in all its synthetic loveliness, continually startling me when I open the wardrobe door.“Can writing a book about cancer give you cancer? Apparently! So that’s my first tip: don’t.”
I have metastatic breast cancer, but fortunately one where the drugs are amazing. Nonetheless, you do become transfixed by statistics. The median life expectancy for my sort of metastatic breast cancer is five years. A small part of me thinks, Yay, I can spend my superannuation. And let me just say, there is not a lot of self-denial going on here. The parcel-delivery man greets me like an old friend. I have this image of my husband going through the wardrobe after I die and coming across all these boxes of shoes. I have a large foot, so perhaps I should specify they go to a transgender charity. Along with the wig maybe.
One thing I am enjoying spending my superannuation on is ogling marine creatures. I can’t ogle enough of them—they make me happy. Immediately I was diagnosed, we flew to Western Australia and snorkeled with a very large, very docile whale shark. My advice: don’t wait for a cancer diagnosis to swim with a whale shark! There is nothing like sticking your head underwater and seeing one of these massive creatures looming out of the depths like a nuclear submarine (albeit a whimsically spotted nuclear submarine). Then we went south to see a bunch of killer whales, who obligingly launched themselves into a hunt (we never did find out what hapless creature they were hunting—it was totally decimated by the time the boat caught up with them.) What a glorious sight to behold, an apex predator in full flight! And let me just say killer whales comport themselves like they know full well they’re apex predators—they are big on charisma, low on humility, like Beyonce. They know how fantastic they look with their gleaming black and white duco, their dorsal fins slicing through the water. I felt star-struck and giddy in their presence; it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
Having a figure like five years (median!) looming over you is an odd thing. On the one hand, I think, well, I am going to blow all my super on shoes and marine encounters and travel and nice dinners, which is pretty much the philosophy I’ve adopted. But then lately, I’ve discovered there’s such a thing as “exceptional responders,” a tiny sub-group who seem to be more or less cured and are kicking on indefinitely. And I think, just my luck, I’ll be an exceptional responder, except I’ll have no super left. I’ll be cured, but I’ll be living in a cardboard box.
Writing a book about cancer and then getting cancer is probably the best way to do it, if you insist upon going down this path. That is to say, if you hadn’t already written a book about cancer, and then you got cancer, the last thing you’d feel like doing is writing a book about it. I was doing the edit of The Bus on Thursday when I was diagnosed so it was handy in that there was still time to throw in various gruesome details and terrors that I may not have dreamed up otherwise. For me, the scariest thing about my sort of breast cancer is it has a high likelihood of traveling to the brain. It is very hard for even me, a Pollyanna of the first order, to put a positive spin on that.
The other day, I had a brain scan, and to my surprise, they presented me with my own DVD that I might take it home and enjoy it at my leisure. Well, I got home, poured myself a big glass of wine, and stuck it in my computer. It had a disclaimer at the beginning about how it might not be a good idea to view it unless you were fully qualified in interpreting such things, but that didn’t put me off for a moment. Sure enough, I counted five or six brain tumors and I wasn’t even trying. In fact, I had to go ahead and pour myself another glass of wine, whereupon I discovered a few more. Amidst the tragic cut-down-in-her-prime feelings I was enjoying, I felt the pang of another regret. It was too late to put this scene in the book, but drunkenly interpreting her own brain scan is exactly what Eleanor would have done. (P.S. The brain scan was clear.)