A big welcome to Jackie Buxton today, who’s been talking very frankly to me about her memoir, Tea and Chemo, which was recently published by Urbane Publications, and life after a cancer diagnosis.
This tale of Jackie’s treatment for breast cancer is a great read and all of the royalties are being donated to the three breast cancer charities that helped her, and many other women like her, during treatment. So please buy a copy! You can get one here direct from the publisher, or here through Amazon.
Jackie, despite the subject matter, your memoir about undergoing treatment for breast cancer is funny, uplifting and inspiring yet you talk in it about ‘The Fear’ that grips you sometimes. How do you keep yourself focused on the positives when the fear shows up?
I’m so pleased you saw all that in Tea & Chemo, Amanda. I wanted the book to be informative but positive so it’s wonderful to hear it described in this way. It seems to me that The Fear affects all cancer patients to a greater or lesser degree after treatment. It’s a sort of disbelief that the body which was caught napping when cancer called the first time, won’t get caught out again.
When you’re having active treatment, you’re invincible. Those operations to cut away the cancer are major surgery. If chemo makes you feel that bad, pah! pity those cancer cells. And then there’s radiotherapy, don’t be fooled by the pain free element and speed of implementation, that’s a big dose of radiation in your body. And then it all stops and suddenly, you, the ex-cancer patient, can feel very small and insipid in the fight to keep cancer from calling again.
Also, once active treatment finishes, aside from check-ups and ongoing medication, you are sent away to live your life – but with the voice of the medical profession constantly tapping in your ear: Be vigilant! Check for new lumps and bumps and get aches and pains checked out. So, as an ex-patient, on the one hand you’re trying to be rational and finally push the cancer thing to the back of your mind, on the other, you know that you are the first line of defence in spotting a new cancer forming or secondaries growing. It’s hard not to over-analyse and to let The Fear become all-consuming.
So, how do I cope with The Fear? That’s a great question! I think I batter it into submission with a hefty dose of logic, distraction and action. There are some questions to which nobody knows the answers, such as whether the cancer will come back, if secondaries are silently forming and for me, without any history of breast cancer in my family, whether my genetic make-up is nonetheless of the cancer forming kind and worse, have I developed a dodgy gene which I will pass on to my children?
The best I can do when these questions rear their awful heads, is to preach to myself what the brilliant medical profession has taught me. Cancer is the result of a perfect storm – all of the body’s defence systems have to be found wanting at the same time for a ‘bad cell’ to become cancerous, mutate and conquer. And I remind myself that for now, and that’s all we can deal with, I am one of the lucky ones because my treatment aim was cure without secondaries and other complications.
This generally works.
Otherwise, manic busy-ness is wonderful for distracting me. It’s really hard to dwell on the unknown when having fun with friends and family, when children need to be picked up simultaneously from opposite ends of Yorkshire, the spreadsheets don’t tally, a class starts in twenty minutes and my next deadline is one hundred pages and a week away. I am certainly someone who is happiest and most carefree when they are busy.
Sometimes The Fear might need addressing and so I take action forthwith. I used to be a little slap happy with my health. I’d have a headache for a few days before being bothered to walk to the medical box to find a couple of paracetamol, would deprive myself of sleep to meet a deadline and would make an appointment for my children to see the doctor when the request had barely left their lips whereas weeks would go by before I picked up the phone for myself.
Now I’m different. If there’s any chance of a sluggish, pit of the stomach sort of fear staying around, then I drop what I’m doing and get on and book an appointment with my long suffering GP practice. I am lucky because all the doctors there, without exception, are very, very understanding of the fact that when you’ve had cancer, every head ache means it’s gone to the brain. Every stomach ache means it’s made its way into your ovaries. Stiff legs and achy joints you say? No matter that you’ve just run twenty miles, swum the channel and ridden a bike (upside down) this can only be a sign of one thing: bone mets (secondary breast cancer in the bones). I joke but it feels seriously real at the time.
And you know, time helps. It’s two years on from diagnosis and I now recognise that I can get a cold, like anyone else, and it’s just a cold.
You said you wrote this book as you’d wanted to find one like it when you were diagnosed – what do you hope it will bring to other women who have to undergo treatment for breast cancer?
When I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2013, I found that there was a wealth of really well-written information about a cancer diagnosis and its treatments. However, I struggled to find much about how it would feel; what it was really like to go through treatment for cancer – emotionally, as well as physically. I also never read anywhere that it might be OK, bearable, even almost pleasant.
The morning spent in hospital being administered my chemo, for example, was thoroughly pleasant. It didn’t hurt, the nursing staff as well as being fantastically efficient and reassuring were also really good fun and while I was unable to go to work put on the washing, cook dinner… I read books, chatted, drank tea and ate sandwiches which other people had made for me. It would be churlish of me to pretend that the time wasn’t fun and hugely relaxing – and that was something I didn’t find written down anywhere.
I hope Tea & Chemo emphasises the lighter side of cancer and its treatments. I hope my experience and learning along the cancer road will help inform people further back in the process than me, but also leave them with the lasting impression that, if we’re lucky, the experience isn’t all bad.
If there was one thing you could go back and tell yourself in the week before your diagnosis what would it be?
Please can I have two?
- You’re going to be one of the lucky ones: your treatment aim is cure.
- You will survive the artery bleed after the mastectomy operation.
Ummm, three? Don’t try to keep your freelance work going during treatment. Enjoy the time when you feel well, and indulge yourself when you don’t! You’ll be back working full time soon enough.
Aside from your memoir, you also have your debut novel coming out in June 2016 – can you tell us a bit about that?
Glass Houses is about two women who make stupid mistakes and the massive ramifications not just for their lives but for those close to them. It’s about people in glass houses not throwing stones. It’s also about how if we smash up our lives, however hard we try to stick them back together again, they will never look the same as they did before. And maybe, just maybe this might not be such a bad thing.
Glass Houses is contemporary fiction so it’s a very different read to Tea & Chemo but I hope that there’s a similarity in that it tackles dark themes with a light touch.
Thanks so much for your time and honesty, Jackie. I look forward to reading your novel. Glass Houses will be published by Urbane Publications on June 9th 2016 and is available to pre-order from Amazon.