At the beginning of this year, my best friend and I drove down the Great Ocean Road. We went around a curve in the road and I drew in my breath because the forests were laid out before me in a startling contrast of gold lace against shadow. The next moment I realised, with another quieter shock, that the shining woods were burned land and the bright leaves were ashes.
It was my first time in Australia, and I loved it so much that I planned to go back this winter. But for a while before that, I was enjoying being in Ireland with Loved Ones, etc.
MUM: So you’re getting ready for Australia.
SARAH: Yep, I bought ankle boots!
MUM: Cool priorities. You might want to see the doctor before you go, just for a check-up about being so worn down and that cough.
I went in for a quick check-up. I wasn’t all that concerned. Writers are just sick a lot: we have an awesome job, but we also have a weird job where you often overwork and keep odd hours and do not take care of yourself. A guy I know worked so hard he got shingles and lost his hair. One of my close writer friends got pneumonia and broke her rib coughing. I got pneumonia from overwork four years ago, and since then have had recurring bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia, depending on my luck! So I went to the doctor and was like ‘Check me out, not to brag but I haven’t had bronchitis since February and it is September, but if you could do something about the persistent cough that would be great.’
Away I went. A few days later it was my birthday, and my phone rang. I was asleep, due to being a lazy toad who regularly wakes up at I’m-too-ashamed-to-tell-you o’clock. I flailed about in my bedsheets and seized the phone, assuming muzzily it was a Loved One with birthday wishes.
SARAH: Hey, sweetie!
DOCTOR: Er, hello… this is your G.P…
SARAH: Hey, er… doctor sweetie… I just feel very close to you since the thermometer incident… No. Uh, why are you calling?
DOCTOR: So your haemoglobin is half the haemoglobin of a normal person’s.
DOCTOR: I would never have thought you were as sick as you are when I saw you!
SARAH: I cannot say you have a soothing bedphoneside manner, doctor.
DOCTOR: Go to the hospital. Soon.
SARAH: Okay, I promise I will. Soon!
And I did, though not that day, because it was my birthday and I had business calls. I was not very worried. Just a bad beginning to my birthday, thought I.
Then came the news there was a ‘shadow’ on the chest scan I’d done, and I hopped to the hospital. Best to get this sorted out, I thought!
SARAH: Hello hospital. Please examine and heal me.
EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR: We must keep you overnight! But we have no beds. Sleep on this shelf.
SARAH: Can I have a pillow?
EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR: *gentle laughter* She wants pillows. Oh child you dream of wild luxuries. Pillows are the first thing to go around here.
Pictured: The Maiden’s Non-Pillow Book
DOCTORS: In the morning, we come to take your blood and give you a pillow.
SARAH: I’m comfortable with this blood/pillow trade.
The hospital was not too bad a place to be. I was given a bed. They constantly took my blood, which led me to suspect they were secret vampires, but they were all very cheery vampires and I trusted them. I did scans. In one scan I was hooked up to a long curly straw, which made me feel like a funky milkshake. Student doctors came by and asked to do tests on me and I chatted with them because I was bored.
STUDENT DOCTOR 1: This is cool, when we tap against your stomach we get a different sound than with an older patient’s.
SARAH: When I start a band, I will be the drum.
STUDENT DOCTOR 2: Oh yeah! I’ve never had this result from a living subject before.
SARAH: A—a living—doctors, please let me maintain my beautiful suspension of disbelief about where your hands have been.
Then a glamorous lady doctor came in. She had such an air, and her surname was Kelly, that I kept calling her Doctor Grace. Her name was not Grace.
Doctor Not Grace sat down my bed, and said in an intently sympathetic voice that they would have to do a biopsy, because this could be an infection or it could—just possibly—be cancer.
When I went to Australia, I went snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef.
Being submerged in a whole other element is funny because your mind keeps trying to compare everything to your own element: phosphorence in the water is like a whirl of cinders carried to you from fire by the wind and the tiny bright fish are like flickers of electricity. The coral becomes a dressmakers’ shelf full of ruched bronze satin and green lace and scarlet net. And when real-life comparison fails, you fall back on stories and you think you are looking at the White Witch’s garden: stone creatures, stone toadstools, stone ferns, stone lace, until a fern gives way to a scarlet ripple or a rock opens like a stone fist and an octopus unfurls to flee.
As the doctor spoke, I felt myself tip a little into another world, where things were not quite what they seemed and stories were slightly too real.
But I turned my face resolutely away and went ‘Hopefully it’s an infection! Yes indeed, biopsy away! Let’s get this done!’
In the theatre of surgicality, the doctor asked first—who had put the bands on my wrist and ankle, they looked ridiculous.
The trainee nurse still beside me had put on the bands. I reassured her with my eyes that I would never betray her secret.
Next he asked me to sign a form to say I consented to him doing the biopsy.
SARAH (knowledgably): Yep, I consent to you making a small incision under my arm to get the materials you need to test!
THEATRE DOCTOR: And if we can’t get what we need there, you consent to us going under the other arm.
THEATRE DOCTOR: And if not there, incision one side of the collarbone.
SARAH: Less sure but okay!
THEATRE DOCTOR: And if not there, incision on the other side of the collarbone.
SARAH: You do what you have to.
THEARE DOCTOR: And if not there, the neck.
SARAH: … When I wake up, will I be more sieve than woman?
As they were putting me under, I heard the doctor ask why I had nail polish on, and they explained they were gel nails.
DOCTOR: And why is one fingernail a different colour from the others?
SARAH’S LAST GASPING WORDS BEFORE CONSCIOUSNESS FELL AWAY: It’s a… signature nail…
I woke up. I only had one incision. This felt like a big win.
Hopefully, in a week, we would get the biopsy results back and I would learn I just had an infection!
I called my parents when Doctor Not Grace said it might be cancer.
SARAH: It might be lymphoma, Mum.
MUM: Oh great!
SARAH: Excuse me?
MUM: They’ll just pop it right out.
SARAH: With the… chemotherapy?
MUM: I misheard you before.
MUM: Oh it’s not cancer. No. Not that.
I told my brother about it. Now, I have two brothers and one sister, all younger than me, all taller and blonder and altogether delightfuller, the apples of my eye. The oldest is my brother Rory, who has always helped me out—he kindly makes writing look like a safe responsible job in comparison to being a pro poker player.
The other two were out of the country.
My brother Saul had very recently moved to Bristol for his first job out of college. He was only just starting. He and I had shopped for business clothing weeks before and become bewildered and distressed among the bow ties.
Pictured: Baby’s First Suit!
Then there was my sister Genevieve, who works in television but, even though she is a dazzling blonde, behind the scenes. She was in Costa Rica. She’d been saving up years for her dream to quit her job and go around the world. She’d only left a few days before.
Pictured: She Is Not Wearing Make-Up, Thus Will Be Mad I Shared This, But Look How Stunning!
I told Rory it might be cancer, and I saw him look scared, and I felt my world try to tip away into that other, stranger world, and we told each other firmly that it was probably just an infection.
And then I told him we couldn’t tell the younger ones. They were so far away. It would freak them out. It was probably just an infection.
There was, of course, a small voice at the back of my head saying doctors don’t go around saying ‘cancer’ unless there’s a good chance that’s what it is. Doctors are a serious folk. They do not say these things to add a spice of excitement to the day.
I had been doing a lot of research on cancer, because my newest book (the treasure of my heart, which I am currently editing into shape because the treasure of my heart is super long!) has a cancer subplot: the heroine’s sister has cancer.
FRIEND: Do you feel like you maybe wrote this into existence, in a vaguely Stephen King flavoured manner?
SARAH: I’m not saying I have eldritch writing powers but soon I plan to write a short story about someone winning ten million dollars, just in case.
The research meant I knew more than I really wanted to.
And there had been warning signs.
I’d come up with excuses that seemed reasonable at the time, like ‘Must be low blood sugar,’ ‘am recovering from pneumonia’ and ‘am incredibly lazy, like a sloth and a tortoise had a little slotortoise baby.’
DOCTOR: You must have often felt like you could not move from the couch or do anything but read.
SARAH: Sure. Ah… Tuesdays.
I’d get out of breath faster than my friends, but I put that down to the lungs being in bad shape.
SARAH: Also wow it has just been too long since I did yoga.
BFF: It has been several years.
And when I came back from Australia, I’d lost some weight. Now, I am a lady of plumpitude, due I imagine to the fact I love sofas and cheese and run only when chased or late for appointments and planes. I was surprised it had happened, but mildly pleased because people complimented me about it and I enjoy a compliment!
SARAH: I guess it’s sunny and beautiful here, I walk more, I eat better…
SARAH: I’m proud of me for living a healthier lifestyle!
SARAH: I’m going to repress all those memories of eating noodles at midnight…
Nobody’s fault, but this is a sad world in which weight loss is automatically seen as a good thing, especially if you are a lady of plumpitude. But friends, I was not walking that much. I was eating the midnight noodle.
I also had cold hands for years, but instead of worrying about those, I just put them on the backs of my friends’ necks and whispered ‘The touch of the grave!’ in their ears. I know they enjoyed this as much as I did.
I had some dizzy spells, and once I admit I fainted in a supermarket in Australia. I sat up, acquired a Lilt and a chocolate bar (which I paid for! Eventually!) and decided to take iron pills. I told my Australian cousins what had happened, and was puzzled when they seemed distressed.
SARAH: Ah yes, I looked a right idiot.
AUSTRALIAN COUSINS: You should have called us!
SARAH: Oh no. Oh that would have been silly! I was fine.
AUSTRALIAN COUSINS: You could have been hurt.
SARAH: Oh no, my fall was totally broken by the frozen broccolini. Lucky, right?
AUSTRALIAN COUSINS: … We love Irish Cousin Sarah, but we fear she is simple.
And I was cranky, and slow at work, but I put this down to being a lazy wretch with a black and twisted heart.
I put all the little worrying things down to a variety of small causes, easily solvable.
SARAH: Oh but your body just goes to hell in your thirties, right?
FRIEND: Sarah I am a decade older than you and you flag after a walk around the shops. Might be low blood sugar.
SARAH: Right. I’m going to start carrying a Snickers bar in my purse. But you know what will happen then.
FRIEND: You’ll feel weird and open the purse…
SARAH (nodding): And I will have definitely eaten the Snickers bar in a fit of greed several hours earlier.
FRIEND: Maybe you should carry nuts in your purse.
SARAH: But you know what will happen then.
FRIEND: You’ll feel weird and open the purse and be mad the nuts are not a Snickers bar.
SARAH (sadly): This is a painful dilemma.
All the little signs could have been just little things. Or all of it might be adding up to a big picture.
I told some of my close friends. My best friend came and visited with me all the time, in the week we waited after the biopsy. Only near the very end, gently and lovingly, did she suggest that I should maybe consider showering.
My friends who were far from me were also angels. Maureen Johnson, writer extraordinaire and now fancy pundit, sent me a massive box of brownies and iced lemon cakes.
RORY: I’ve come to visit the sick and I brought you a brownie—
RORY: I see I’ve made a bad call.
RORY: I also brought a banana because they are very healthy.
SARAH (coldly): I reject the banana and will not have it in my home. I will accept your brownie because it is an offering of love.
RORY: So now you have… a million and one brownies?
SARAH: That’s love, baby.
Pictured: Let ‘Em Eat Cake
Later, I was told Rory must be very worried about me, because he hardly ate his turkey burger and broccoli. I reflected back on Rory the last time I had seen him, with one glorious brownie and one tremendous lemon cake in either hand.
‘Or perhaps,’ I said, ‘some mysteries are never meant to be solved.’
The day before the diagnosis, a beautiful hamper arrived. It smelled of lavender and fanciness. It had a robe and slippers and French soaps within. It was from all my writer friends I had told: Maureen, Holly ‘Beautiful Soul’ Black, Pulitzer finalist of my heart Kelly Link, redheaded queen of fancy loveliness Cassie Clare and the wise and wonderful Robin Wasserman. Even though I was far away from them, they wanted to make sure I felt looked after.
Pictured: Woman Gloating With Hamper
And I did. And it was all going to be fine, really. Though I was slightly concerned as the week passed that my mother, a wonderful lady in many respects but a sharer with all the world, was telling a lot of people the news. The maybe-news.
I was really worried that my little sister or brother would get word of it, and freak out. I didn’t want them to fret. After all, everything was fine. Probably. Hopefully. Maybe.
I went in for my appointment with the doctor, Glamorous Not Grace Kelly. She was wearing a stunning dress. My parents were sitting on either side of me.
Yes, she said, it was cancer. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, very treatable. Definitely the cancer to pick, if you were going through a cancer catalogue. I would have an appointment with my oncologist on Monday, and did I have any questions?
The world tilted decisively, into that strange world where things I did not quite believe were nevertheless true.
‘Well…’ I said. ‘I would like to know where you got your dress.’
Dr Not Grace laughed and said I was something else. She did not tell me where she got her dress. I was only partly joking, Dr Not Grace!
My mother was crying. Dr Not Grace gave her tissues.
When we drove home, Rory met us at the gates. I went right to him, and he said ‘Well?’ With my usual smooth wordsmithing, I said, ‘Well, uh, yeah.’ Then I glanced up at him, and I said, very quickly: ‘Yes, it’s cancer.’ My brother’s a big guy, and strong in a lot of ways. He made a noise as if he’d been hit. I reached up and put my arms around his neck and my head down on his shoulder, and I believed I had cancer, and we were terrified.
I thought: I have to tell the younger ones now. I don’t know how I’m going to tell them.
I wanted to write this up, to explain why I might be out of commission at times, disappearing offline for stretches: to make sure it didn’t seem like I was just disappearing. I’d love it if people shared this post, to make sure word gets to everyone who might want to know, since I am low energy often and unable to tell all the people I’d have liked to tell individually. And I want to go on to talk about what happened and what will happen next, if people are interested: to have the experience be seen and shared and real. I never do quite believe in stories until they’re shared.
This is how I found out, and this is how I’m telling you.