It is a sad day indeed. We have just discovered that Graham Joyce, award-winning author extraordinaire of speculative/fantasy fiction and fellow sufferer of Mantle Cell Lymphoma, died on September 9th. Stephen first came across his novels a couple of years ago and we were both hooked right from the start – The Silent Lands being my favourite to date. It was only a few months ago that I was researching him and his books on the internet and discovered that he was diagnosed last year with the same cancer as me. There are precious few of us MCL people around, and having found and devoured his blog, I felt compelled to get in touch. His whole take on the fight/acceptance issue was the same as mine and I feel privileged to have shared a couple of emails with him. He was immensely supportive of my book (out in February with O Books) and said he would be glad to write an endorsement for me. Imagine that! I was so excited at the thought of one of my writing idols giving me an endorsement. My excitement was tempered with caution though. He was writing to me from his hospital bed, where he said he wasn’t faring too well and that he would be back to me as soon as he felt better. That was September 2nd. I am absolutely gutted that the world has lost such a talented writer and teacher and all round really nice bloke. We discovered the news quite by chance this morning, although I think we had both sort of kept an eye on his progress without saying anything to each other because we so badly wanted there to be good news. We were shocked to find he had died so soon after his email to me.
After reading the obituary, we followed the link to his guest slot on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dm87k where he spoke eloquently himself and interviewed his consultant and fellow author Peter Crowther (a survivor of testicular cancer) about the language and metaphor of cancer. I found myself nodding vigorously through my tears as I listened to him; he also didn’t feel comfortable with the metaphor of a battle, and he noted that it is only in death from cancer that people are described as having ‘lost their battle’ – you don’t hear that somebody lost their battle with heart disease, or diabetes. Why do we have this imagery? We both agreed in our short email correspondence that the metaphor of battle is very damaging and a huge burden for the person who has just been diagnosed with cancer. I remember writing in a very early blog that I felt I simply didn’t have the energy to engage battle as well as deal with the shock of diagnosis and the nitty gritty of treatment. And what was I fighting? Myself? Graham’s consultant was involved in part of the interview and he said, so rightly, that cancer cells are a natural part of our bodies, it is just that in some of us we are dealt the bum card and the cells get the upper hand. Well, he was obviously a bit more elegant and scientific about it, but that was the basic meaning. So how can we fight our own bodies? Or even, can we? In the early days, I struggled to visualise the rogue cells being stormed by chemo soldiers, but it just didn’t work. I had to find another way that was more in keeping with my nature.
What Graham moved on to in the programme, and what I had also discovered for myself, was that by focusing on the here and now (yes, that one again!) we discover the positive things we can do and it stops us worrying about the future. Because of course the first thing we think of after a cancer diagnosis is the possibility (nay, probability, in my darker moments) of saying a premature farewell to our loved ones. Cue more tears. He called this anticipatory grief, and I know it well. The combination of trying to wage a battle whilst at the same time thinking maudlin thoughts of an early departure are incredibly negative but they are the landscape with which cancer patients quickly become familiar. And having become familiar, we have to find a way of coping, which in my case ranges from deep meditation and acceptance to punching pillows and screaming at how unfair it all is. I’ve done both of those and I have to say they are extremely fulfilling in their different ways. I find I unwittingly revisit this scenario every time I hear that someone I know of in some capacity has died of cancer, or that there has been a new diagnosis, but it is even more poignant and difficult when it is due to MCL. My first reaction is “Shit – another one who backs up the statistics”, my stomach clenches in fear, then I have to find a way to get myself positive again.
I must admit I have been a teeny bit down of late, as my throat has been feeling strange and I have noticed some very subtle changes in my body. I try not to be completely paranoid, but I’m relieved that I am off to see Joe in a couple of weeks. There will be the usual battery of blood tests and I can tell him my concerns, as he always wants to know – so I don’t feel as though I am moaning or being a hypochondriac. In the meantime, though, I am trying to remember to rest and do a bit more exercise. We are both working like crazy (again) and in the midst of all that craziness it is hard to remember that we are supposed to be backing off and especially doing the exercise bit. We often finish work so late that we are grateful to just come home and eat – when in fact what we should do is finish early and make the effort to go for that run. My spirits were very much improved by doing some yoga last night – no surprises there then!
It strikes me as I write this that I am nearly two years on from my initial diagnosis, and that although I have been through the physical and emotional wringer that is chemotherapy and stem cell transplant and have been led to that promised land of remission, I still feel that psychologically I am at the beginning of this amazing experience we call ‘life’. What continues to mystify, maybe even enthral me, is that, sophisticated as we think we are, we have absolutely no control over what is going to happen in the next few minutes. There are those who never get the chance to prepare for goodbyes; they are whisked away by the Grim Reaper in an instant in all kinds of unexpected ways. It brings to mind the lovely words of a consultant from 24 Hours in A&E, a beautiful series based on real-time events in a London Hospital. He said something like, “We don’t get a second shot at this thing we call life – it can all end in an instant – so doesn’t it make sense to tell your loved ones that you love them while you still can?” And I believe that is how Graham Joyce finished his allotted quota. As a writer he said that he was always concerned about endings and would often spend much of the book deliberating a good ending. He didn’t believe anyone loses a battle with cancer, and he certainly didn’t. I know he would like it said that he lived well, and by God, I think he died well. RIP Graham, you will be missed.