Writing Books And Fighting Cancer, By T.J. Brown

Teri wrote me asking for an interview for her book, Summerset Abbey, which has a lovely Downton Abbey vibe to it — and in asking me about said interview she said, almost as a throwaway, that oh, she totally had cancer in the middle of this whole writing-and-publishing adventure and ha ha, oh, didn’t that suck. And I thought, “Well, my normal 10 Q’s don’t really cover this territory,” and I was afraid it would miss the boat on what she really had to say, so I thought, okay, maybe it’d be better to have her come by and pen a guest post not about the book but about being a writer who had cancer and what that meant for her. What follows is a funny, fascinating post — check it out, won’t you?

When Chuck first suggested I write a guest blog, my mind was blown. Well, not completely blown because I had basically guilted him into it, though I find guilt to be such a severe word and much prefer the softer sound of, say, moral cajolery. By the time I was done with Chuck, he’d have questioned his humanity had he turned me down. Like those clips on American Idol where they tell a story that make you feel so sorry for the contestant you’d not only vote for them, you’d give them your kidney, your liver and your gall bladder, all in one fell swoop.

It was sorta like that.

I had a hell of a story and it wasn’t just your average story of the girl from Alfalfa making good. She was making it good in the PUBLISHING INDUSTRY, which as Chuck told you here is pretty damn hard. She got not one but TWO great contracts from two major publishing houses and she was just about as happy as a woman can be who has four back to back, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching deadlines. But deadlines schmeadlines! PUBLISHING CONTRACTS! UNICORNS! FAIRY DUST! KITTENS! CANCER!

Wait, what?

So it didn’t turn out to be your average story and it sure as hell wasn’t supposed to happen to me. One day I was signing the contract, the next I was turning in my resignation to the day job and the day after that, my doctor was telling me that the lump in my neck, which had tested NEGATIVE for cancer, mind you, was indeed, actually, CANCER. Oops. Sorry.

No, no, no, nonononono. I had CONTRACTS. I had DEADLINES. I had LOTS and LOTS of DEADLINES.

I had cancer.

After two surgeries it was determined that my cancer was highly treatable.

Me: (Hopefully) Oh, so it’s not like real cancer? I mean, yeah, it’s cancer but not like cancer, cancer, right?

Doctor: Oh, no, its cancer, cancer, but luckily, you don’t have to have chemo. Instead, the treatment is seven weeks of daily throat radiation.

Me: (Baffled) I have lucky cancer?

Doctor: (Shuffling papers) In a matter of speaking. But throat radiation is, uh, one of the most painful types of radiation you can have. We’ll put you on a high dosage of morphine to help combat the pain.

Me: (Perking up.) I get morphine?

Doctor: Yes. And I won’t put in a feeding tube if you promise to eat and not lose too much weight.

Me: (Positively giddy) I’ll lose weight?

So cancer was like summer camp minus the hot councilors, and adding on the agony, nausea, and constant fear of a protracted and painful death.

I won’t go into the level of pure suckage here, because I don’t generally focus on suckage. I’m incredibly blessed and very lucky. My latest test shows that the cancer is completely gone and my doctors are apparently impressed with my supernatural healing powers. So instead of focusing on that which sucks unto the stars, I am focusing on what I gained. Taking a page from Chuck’s book, I’m making a list of things I learned writing the Summerset Abbey series while being treated for and recovering from cancer, and taking copious amounts of morphine.

1. About Pain: Pain is more bearable if you can transport your mind somewhere else. For me, this meant opening the little door in my brain and letting the people of Edwardian England talk NONSTOP in their funny, stilted voices. I listened carefully, wrote down their stories and books formed. The experience was so intense and the voices so real, it quite took me out of what I was experiencing physically. While I’ve had characters talk to me before, I’ve never heard them with such pitch perfect clarity… which may have been due to the number of morphine drops I was swallowing. Just a thought.

2. Cancer is the ULTIMATE excuse: Whenever asked to do something I didn’t want to do, I’d just say in a loud, faux whisper. “I’m sorry, I can’t. You know, CANCER.” For instance, “So you want to drive five hours to the family reunion to make nice with people you don’t know and who will ask you how that writing thing is going anyway?” You can just say, “Sorry, I would LOVE to go, but you know, the CANCER.” Cancer even gets you out of shit you have already committed to, like heading up the auction at your children’s school, teaching Sunday school, or running that writing workshop for orphans. Not that I ever did anything of those things, but I’m just saying. Seriously, it’s the ULTIMATE EXCUSE.

3. The Strangest People Work in Oncology: Now don’t get me wrong. I love my oncologist and her team. I even dedicated book two of the Summerset Abbey series, A Bloom in Winter to them.

But damn.

The first time I walked into the oncology waiting room, I noticed a nurse sitting near the window. The nurse didn’t move. The nurse was a MANNEQUIN. I glanced at the other cancer victims and their relatives, but no one seemed to think it odd that a mannequin dressed as a nurse sat in a chair in the corner. Before I went in for my consultation, I asked the receptionist about it. “Oh, that’s Nurse Ann.” Okay. Like everyone else, I got used to Nurse Ann, until I realized that Nurse Ann frequently changed her clothes and dressed up for the holidays. Now when I go in for my follow up appointments, I look at the seemingly normal medical assistants and think to myself, which one of you sick freaks dresses the mannequin?

4. A Brave Person is Just Someone Who Didn’t Know What Else To Do: People have called me brave, but I’m not really. I didn’t choose to have cancer like a person chooses to run into a burning building to save someone’s life. But then again, maybe the person who ran into the burning building didn’t choose their actions either, they just automatically did it. Maybe they felt as if they didn’t have a choice. I wrote four books in a year and fought cancer because I didn’t have a choice. Cancer was not going to define the career I had worked my ass off to get. WOULD NOT.

See, no choice. I’m not sure if that’s bravery or just doing what you gotta do. Or the morphine. It could have been the morphine.

But honestly, if I knew what propelled me out of bed each day to write those books, while feeling like a warmed over piece of death toast, I would so share with you. (Actually, I would probably bottle it and sell it like a snake oil salesmen, but that’s beside the point.)

5. I do NOT want to get cancer again: This comes with a long list of wilt nots and shalt nots. I wilt not smoketh again. I shalt not forget to drink my daily water. I wilt not forget to take my vitamins nor the gazillion other supplements that Dr. Oz says I should take for optimal health. (This is harder than it seems because the minute he mentions a product, me and fifty million other people run to the local GNC to pick it up. I once had to wrestle an old woman for the last bottle of gingko gingered cranberry extract of Himalayan Snake’s Ass.)

This is the paragraph where I’m supposed to conclude with something brilliant and funny but I got nothing. Oh, wait, yes I do. Go buy my book, Summerset Abbey and Summerset Abbey: A Bloom in Winter. That would be nice. They’re good books, even if they were written faster than lightning by a woman fighting cancer and high on morphine. Or maybe they are good books because of that? Who knows. Thanks for playing!

Teri Brown: Website / Twitter

Find her books at Amazon, B&N, and Indiebound.

36 comments

  • Wonderful to know that you conquered that demon. I’ve not had the experience myself but have been with others through it and I know a lot of the subtext (and some weird doctors). Scary, scary stuff. And morphine is great lol. Congratulations on the books and the deals and the unicorns and fairy dust part! Hugely jealous, and long may it continue 🙂

  • Thank you for the amazing story. My husband is currently battling liposarcoma and I know how weird and scary this can all be. As a fellow writer, and blogger I salute your courage and laughter!

  • Congratulations on your writing success. Your books sound lovely. (I am a fan of Abbeys and folks with lilting accents.) Most of all, thank you for sharing your personal story. I’m always glad to get a reminder that we can make plans but life doesn’t always let us carry them out easily. Especially health issues, which can put everything on hold so quickly, make you sort out what’s important, and learn –as you said– how to “transport your mind.” Very wonderful post. Thank you. Looking forward to reading your books.

  • Wonderful blog. And I’m so glad you’re okay.
    I had cancer many years ago. AND IT AIN’T NO FUN AT ALL. It was even worse when my daughter got it. But THANK GOD, she’s in remission too. And I wish I could say that I could take Morphine, but It makes me deathly ill and I can’t tolerate it. SHUCKS or actually words much stronger than that.

    And I’m so thrilled that you’ve kicked the devil where it hurts and that you’ve accomplished sooo much. CONGRATULATIONS!!! I’ll buy the books.
    Teresa R.

  • And another book/series to add to my must-read list. Congratulations on your success in both writing and overcoming the C-beast. Much love and luck to you.

  • Girl, with Chuck W. sense of humor! Huzzah! On all three fronts, hanging onto that sense of humor, getting those books published and most of all, coming out on the other side. That bravery thing, out of the park. (Or Abbey, ) Did two surgeries last year, major and got to the point of yeah, got this thing hammered, know the ropes, I’m cool with this. They were giving me my life back, so what’s not to celebrate? My approach netted me no weird docs and nurses having it out, fighting to be assigned to me. Maybe it was my not being able to tolerate Morphine, LOL.

    Along with my life, I resurrected a book two agents tried to get published, only to discover was ahead of its time. Thanks to the surge of YA, NA, I said NOW is the time. About 100 pages away from finishing the first re-draft.

    So, yes, yes, yes, what life dishes, is part of the inspiration behind the obsession to tell stories. Your “escaping” into the “reality” of your book, so much so it lifted you out of your pain (and probably fear and doubt and all the other dirt birds that come with being sick) is the power of truly being in the now. Salute, Lady Word Warrior!

  • You just made my day. You are funny and lovely and, yes, brave.

    My middle child (25) had cancer as an infant–I agree with you on the excuses! You just cannot trump cancer. I still think about his oncologist and the nurses. I loved them, and don’t you think they have to be weird just to get through all the shit?

  • Great post, Teri. You are definitely an inspiration, and I love the fact that you chose to let your writing–not your cancer–define you. You are so strong, and I can’t wait to read your books!

  • Having worked in a hospital for a while – I know I would have been one of the crazies dressing that mannequin up and changing her poses:) Great post Teri~

  • Hi Terri, I become amnesic with Demerol … not a good mix if writing! Congratulations on your writing and fighting at the same time. Focusing on something positive, that brings us a sense of joy and control can only add to whatever the doctors and nurses are doing.

  • Thanks Teri – I like your style! Just under a year of surgeries, chemo and radiation later I can only agree with your definition of ‘brave’. In truth there are few choices when Cancer comes calling and you just have to get on with it. I shunned various advice to stop doing this or that (much of it I’m afraid to say from US websites and books) and just got back to scary normal. Maybe parts of the diary I kept during that year may find their way into a book sometime – to write about the experience with humour seemed like the only way to go at the time!

  • March 14, 2013 at 2:27 PM // Reply

    Dear Chuck,
    I’m sorry, but Teri is even funnier than you are (which takes some doing, although she does use fewer bad words). Please let her write all the blog posts in future. Okay, how about just most of them? A couple?

    Dear Teri,
    Thanks for sharing your story and for making me laugh on a day when I really needed it. You rock. And I hope your books sell gazillions.

  • Great post! I love your sense of humor and your ability to rise above the toughest challenge possible. Four books in a year? In a year like that? Amazing!

    But, yikes–$20+ for an ebook? What is your publisher trying to do to your sales?? I will have to order the paperback. : )

      • Sigh. Unless you’re from Canada, I guess. Just checked again and still getting the $20.51 price. I HATE that Amazon has forced me to switch my Kindle account from US to Canada. The disparity in price makes no sense to me. So many books I want to read are just too much. I’ll try the paperback at $10.20.

        On second thought – it may not be the publisher so much as Canadian wireless costs forcing Amazon to raise prices for Canadian Kindle users. Up until recently we could coast along on our US Kindle accounts and get the same prices as US consumers. That’s no longer possible.

        • P.S. For a while, I was able to use the US address of one of my copywriting clients. But then Amazon realized this wasn’t the same as my credit card billing address and ended that. Anyone else find another work around?

  • Teri, Great post! I can’t wait to meet you in person. You sound like a true Central Oregonian. 😉 I’m glad the cancer is gone and you can continue writing wonderful books.

  • BRAVO Teri, hats off to you (and coats, scarves and gloves too), high fives and cheers, that’s awesome, well done you!!
    So…..I’ll shut up about everything taking so long then, seeing as I haven’t got Cancer (thanks God), and I’m just trying to write ONE book in a year….
    I’m inspired!

  • I am a writer, and am disabled by a chronic illness. And both, not one but BOTH, of my parents are currently fighting cancer. It sucks, every day. I don’t know what is propelling me out of bed each day, either. I guess the reality is that if I stay in bed, I will still be sick and my parents will still have cancer so I may as well get up and fight. Best wishes to you for your books and staying cancer free!

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, Teri, and for doing it in such a down to earth, humourous, human way. Various reports suggest 1 in 3 of us will develop cancer at some point in our lives, but you, and many others, show how it’s possible to keep going and keep being creative and motivated even in the face of adversity. I have to wonder if somebody who was going through your experience but say, working as a shop assistant, rather than a writer, would have felt the same. I often believe my writing keeps me sane (in a very kooky and eccentric way, like that funny relative who always mumbles to himself and smells of cabbage) and there are times when everything has been dark and writing has been the only light to see by.

    Lovely to hear from you, and I’ll remember your excellent ‘ultimate’ excuse should I ever be unfortunate enough to be one of the three.

  • Wow, I don’t even know what to say except thank you. My heart goes out to all those suffering similarly. I agree that writing keeps you sane, or perhaps more correctly, at a stable level of insanity. And in no way am I as funny as Chuck. Or as profane. Or as profanely funny. And thank you Chuck for allowing me to natter away. It’s been a thrill. (And yes, I lead a fairly boring life) Muah!

  • Hi Teri,

    I cannot begin to explain how much this post both touched and amused me. Congratulations on your supernatural healing powers, and good luck with your writing career. Someday soon when I have an income that allows me to buy books I’ll definitely be looking up Summerset Abbey.

    ~Dianna

  • You not only succeeded in guilting Chuck, but me as well.

    After hearing “I had cancer and still wrote four books in one year.” my writing anxieties seem, well, awfully trite and insignificant. Which they are, and I’m beginning to realize this. So thank you for being awesome, and congrats on conquering the Big C and sending it running like the coward it is. I could never know what that’s like to go through. My wife recently had a cancer scare (turned out negative, thank goodness) and the test results wait was terrifying enough. Good luck on your series!

  • Hi Teri – I followed you here from MomWriters. Thank you for sharing your story – it’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it. I am glad to hear that you are cancer free – and that you have all these wonderful books to share. I am definitely going to check them out…

  • Ah, morphine. The miracle drug as far as I’m concerned. 🙂 I refused it once in my life, for about half an hour, then told the doctor I would try a small dose. He smiled indulgently and said he would do half of what he’d recommended, but would be happy to come back for more. Ahem…more was good too.

    It is amazing that anyone can write four books in a year–even without the cancer excuse. So you are amazing just for that. Add in cancer, morphine, still being available for your kids, and I think you get a superwoman poster to hang in hospitals and classrooms. Or is it a dartboard? I can’t remember. You choose.

    The books are great! I loved Summerset Abbey and Bloom in Winter is downloaded waiting to be read. So huge congrats, and may you be cancer free for the rest of your life.

  • Great post. I had just given up the day job to write full time when I had a cancer scare (only a scare, fingers and all other digits crossed) and my brain was totally going ‘Nonono not *now*, waaah,’ like there would ever be a *good* time for it. Damn, I’ve been lucky. And your productivity under the circumstances totally puts me to shame. Here I’ve been not hitting my wordcount just because of a virus…I shall be buying your books, and keeping them where I can see them, to shame the evil excusemonkey.

  • You are hilarious! Fantastic post! If your books are even a fraction this amusing while dealing with the same incredible heart-breaking issues, I will be so pleased. …Off to acquire them and find out…

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds