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!
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.
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!