The Day You Wake Up In Cancerland: A Message For New Arrivals

It could be any day of the year (although it’s less likely to occur on a weekend). It might come as a sudden, unwelcome piece of news dropped into the midst of a time when you’re doing everything right. Or it may be one more goddam thing on top of a mountain of difficulties you’ve been trying to dig yourself out from under—insult added to injury, or the latest injury in a series.

There is no time in anyone’s life when waking up in Cancerland is pleasant, let alone convenient.

The time you spend hanging, when all you know is that you have cancer is fucking awful. You don’t know what to expect but you’ve heard stories, either from friends or maybe from accounts in blogs like this one, and they run the gamut, from nerve-wracking to scary to scary-disgusting-horrifying.

The problem is, you don’t know what to worry about first:

• Getting a doctor who won’t tell you anything, or one that will tell you too much, in such technical terms that you can’t understand what they’re saying;

• What the drugs will or won’t do to you;

• How you’re going to keep up with your life if you’re having debilitating side effects like barfing your guts out;

• If you have achieved a certain level of standing in your career and/or workplace, are you going to lose it because now everyone thinks you’re dying?

• Will management figure you’re a lost cause instead of a valued employee?

• Who do you tell, and when? And how?

• Will your friends still call, still include you?

• What if the treatment doesn’t work?

• Should you try going to a support group meeting or will it be too weird to be so open with people you don’t even know?

• What the fuck? What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?!

The good news is, I’m reasonably sure that this is as bad as it gets.

I’m not going to promise this is true because one size doesn’t fit all and no one thing is true for everyone. But of all the Cancerland residents I’ve spoken to (which of course is nowhere near all of them), they all describe this stretch of time as being the most stressful psychologically.

For some people, the trauma of being told they have cancer lasts longer than it does for other people. But for most of the people I’ve talked to, as soon as they knew what was coming in the way of treatment—chemo, surgery, radiation, whatever—they felt steadier. And once treatment began and they knew how it was going to feel, they regained a lot of their self-confidence. Part of this was discovering they could deal with chemo, even when it was really rough.

I’m pretty sure it will be that way for you, too, although right now, you may not feel that way. Maybe you’re sneaking away for a few moments to break down and cry, or spiral into an anxiety or panic attack. Then you pull yourself together and jump back into your day, which is already in progress.

That’s okay. Do what you have to do. Your feelings aren’t wrong, and you should handle them however is right for you. If you still feel like doing that while you’re having treatment, go ahead. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel—your life, your rules.

Living in Cancerland is never easy. But dangling in the liminal space between diagnosis and treatment can be the worst you’re going to feel emotionally and psychologically.

Once you get a better idea of what’s ahead of you, however, the world starts to come back into focus and the ground beneath you will feel more solid. Cancerland is not a place where we have control over everything that happens to us but we are still who we’ve always been. We can navigate this terrain on our own terms.

You can navigate this terrain on your own terms.

Uncertainty, not knowing is torture—and that’s not hyperbole. Knowing isn’t going to be easy or stress-free—on the contrary! Treatments designed to kill cancer are rough on people and there’s no guarantee the news will be good when you come out the other side.

But you can deal.

Maybe, due to circumstances beyond your control, you’ve always had to be strong but this is not only unexpected, it’s completely beyond your experience. Or maybe you’ve never really thought of yourself as being especially tough and you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to cope. Or maybe you’re somewhere in between. However you see yourself, read the words below, and believe them:

You can handle it. You’ve got this. Whatever it is, however it comes out: you’ve got this.


Too Bad For You, Cancer—

I don’t just talk it, I walk it, and I walk all over Cancer with my Technicolor Doc Martens.

Of course, I had to make up for all the time I didn’t spend getting nervous in the two weeks before the appointment. So after all the tough talk in the preceding post, I had a twenty-four hour anxiety attack before a member of my oncologist’s medical team told me I still have my boot on Cancer’s neck.

The anxiety is all part of the ritual, along with the donning of the lucky t-shirt and getting take-out from Itsu afterwards.

Green bananas for everybody, till the last two weeks in September. In the meantime, rock it while you got it.

I Was So Busy…

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working on a new novelisation project on a short deadline (sorry, can’t tell you what it is yet). It has kept me so busy that I completely forgot to put tomorrow’s appointment with my oncologist on my calendar. Which means I forgot to get nervous about it. I forgot to stop buying green bananas on 16 May. I almost forgot to get a blood test today.

This is so weird––my awareness of having incurable, terminal cancer actually got pushed so far into the background of my life, I lost track of it altogether.

I got so busy, I beat cancer.

Beating cancer isn’t limited to going into remission or being cured. You beat cancer when you’re too busy living your life to let cancer be the most important thing in it.

In the beginning, it is. When you get that diagnosis, when you start chemo, your entire reality is made of cancer. Your whole life is reset in terms of having cancer. You have to figure out how to come to terms with it. You decide how to deal: fight it, dance with it, play chess with it and out-manoeuvre it––your life, your rules.

The act of doing all these things is living. Cancer might kill you in the end––but until it does, you’re alive.

I have cancer but cancer doesn’t have me. Cancer can only kill me because it can’t beat me.

Still, I really do have to be more careful about putting appointments with my oncologist on my calendar.

Cancer: Still On The Run

This is my new good-luck t-shirt, which I wore to my appointment with my oncologist today. I saw one of Dr. McC’s team today and she got a big kick out of it. The people in the waiting room seemed to like it, too.

I’m doing the Happy Dance but I’m submerged in Deadline Hell.

I can’t die, I’m booked.

2019?! Now Even I’m Impressed With Myself

Okay, I know that must read kinda strange as it probably seems like no one could be more impressed with me than I am. A nice lady once told me that I have the confidence of a mediocre white man, a description that made me laugh like a drain. But I digress.

2019 is a year that sounds impossibly futuristic to me. Did anyone ever conceive of a non-post-apocalyptic 2019 without flying cars or vacations on the Moon or a colony on Mars or a cure for every disease/condition/affliction except the common cold?

As I have said many times before, here and elsewhere, I never felt like someone with terminal cancer, never felt as if I were dying even when I was undergoing chemo. I’m fortunate in that—so far—I have never been in pain, never felt like I couldn’t go on, never had to stop doing anything I wanted to do, especially writing. I never felt as if I were sinking or declining.

And yet, to my great surprise, I have discovered that I actually never thought past the end of 2018.

Now, that’s really odd because my original expiration date was sometime in 2016. When it became plain at the end of 2015 that I was obviously going to live longer than expected, I realised that I had torn all the rest of the pages out of the calendar, so to speak. I had mentally written off anything past the end of 2016 and I had to consciously acknowledge that I was going to be affected by things I had thought wouldn’t be my concern/problem/responsibility. Among other things, I was going to have to deal with the twin madnesses of Brexit and President Trump and, unless some bitch drops a house on me to steal my shoes, Cross-Rail will be completed in my lifetime.

(I should have known better—scroll me if you’ve heard this one: Over half a century ago, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I asked my mother as she was putting me to bed one night if she thought the US and Russia would end up bombing us all back to the Stone Age. “Fuggedaboudit, putschka,” she said. “Nothing’s ever going to happen that will get us out of having to go to work and school tomorrow.” She was right back then and she has yet to be wrong.)

But…2019. Holy guacamole.

It wasn’t that I didn’t make any plans. I’ll be at the world science fiction convention in Dublin. The weekend after that, Peadar Ó Guilín and I are co-Toastmutants at EuroCon 2019 in Belfast. With any luck, I’ll get back to KU in June. Amanda and I have been talking about visiting Iceland (the country, not the supermarket). But 2019 seemed abstract, or like wishful thinking about some time far in the future—except it isn’t. Now it’s 1 January 2019, and I feel no less alive and immortal than I ever did. No, I didn’t imagine feeling any different, but I didn’t imagine feeling, period.

I do have a few things to get through. I stop buying green bananas on 14 February, before my appointment with my oncologist at the end of the month. If that goes okay, there’ll be two more of them. I’m optimistic but I still have cancer—recurrent uterine cancer doesn’t go into remission. I can’t take anything for granted. I’m doing great but I can’t make plans too far in advance, especially if there’s a non-refundable deposit involved. I swear, that’s not a whinge. It’s just that when someone asks me if I want to join them in traveling around whatever part of the world is hosting the world sf convention beforehand, or stay to visit friends afterwards, I can’t commit before the fares go up, or the non-refundable deposit is due.

Maybe that’s what happened. I was so busy figuring things out in sixteen-week instalments, the time got away from me and before I knew it, it was 2019.

2019. Damn.

Kick out the jams! Happy New Year, everybody!

It’s Christmas Eve and You Know What That Means—

It’s time for my favourite Christmas story. Experienced readers will know this is not your standard Christmas story. It’s not even a Christmas story at all. It’s a story I heard for the first time years ago, and when the holiday season rolled around, it was the first thing I thought of. So I’ve been posting it every year, and I’ll be posting it every year until further notice.

One night, Confucius had a dream about chopsticks.

In the dream, he was transported to Hell, where he saw multitudes of people sitting at enormous tables set out with wonderful foods of all kinds. There was so much food that the tables groaned under the weight and the various delightful aromas made the mouth water. But the people sitting at the tables had not touched any of it.

They had been told they could eat as much as they liked but only if they ate with chopsticks that were five feet long. None of them could figure out how to feed themselves with five-foot-long chopsticks so all they could do was stare helplessly at this amazing feast and cry in hunger, misery, and despair.

Then Confucius was taken to heaven where he again saw multitudes of people sitting around enormous tables laden with glorious foods. They had also been told they were allowed to eat only if they used the five-foot-long chopsticks. But these people were not crying with hunger and misery and despair. They were eating their fill, talking and laughing together, enjoying themselves.

Because in heaven, they were feeding each other.

My friends, whatever holiday you celebrate, wherever you are and however you celebrate it, I hope it’s heavenly.

Two Years Of Borrowed Time & I’m Still Not Dead

I’d love to write a lot of inspirational entries about still being alive but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was right when she said, ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.’ It’s also the busiest. I’ve been so busy continuing to be alive, I haven’t had time to wax rhapsodic about continuing to be alive.

That my sound sarcastic but in truth, I wish I could. I wish I could tell you that every glitch and inconvenience, every little (and not so little) ache and pain, every boring chore and utterly grey day is a reminder that it’s still great to be alive and to know that I’m going to be alive for some indefinite period of time.

Cancer and I have reached a stand-off that puts it in the background of my life. In fact, it’s so much in the background that I really do forget I have it. Now that Harley Quinn: Mad Love has come out from Titan Books I’ve been doing some interviews and the topic of cancer just doesn’t come up. (The Topic of Cancer—as opposed to The Tropic of Cancer; there’s a story in there somewhere and Henry Miller would probably plotz).

While I’m self-promoting, the prequel novel to the movie Alita Battle Angel is out, too: Alita Battle Angel: Iron City is available in paperback or eBook, also from Titan. Alita Battle Angel the movie will be released 14 February 2019, which when the novelisation–also written by me–will be available. Last year at this time, I had finished the novelisation and was busy with the prequel. Just after I turned it in, I went to work on Harley Quinn: Mad Love, in collaboration with Harley’s co-creator (and wonderful human being), Paul Dini. It was a good, happy time that kept me too busy to think much about having cancer.

it also kept me too busy to do much else–I got up, wrote till I dropped, then got up the next morning and did it again. But it was great to know that even in my mid-sixties, I can do that—I’m not too tired or out of touch to write like a demon. And I can fill my mind with something a million miles away from cancer. It also reminded me how much I love writing.

People have asked me why I do novelisations and media tie-ins, why I don’t just concentrate on my own work and try to achieve high art. And it’s like this: high art is wonderful and everyone should expose themselves to it. But after people come home from the museums or the symphony, after they do the required reading, when they’re done elevating their intellects and their spirit, they turn to popular culture to relax and that’s where it’s crucial to have quality. People admire high art but they take their cues from popular culture. There’s a book called Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Star Trek (preceded by Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten) and that’s really not a joke.

Forty-some years ago, I went to a talk Gene Roddenberry gave in Kansas City, about his experiences with the Star Trek (original recipe, of course). He mentioned going into a bar in the American Deep South, which, in the late 1960s, wasn’t always safe for a man with long hair. A man sitting next to him at the bar struck up a conversation with him and asked him if he’d ever seen Star Trek. Roddenberry admitted he might have caught a few episodes. The man said, “You see all kinds of people working together and getting along together on that show. It’s not real, it’s a TV show, but when you see that, you see it could be that way. We could all work together and get along with each other.”

Now, that’s not word-for-word, I’m paraphrasing but that was the gist and I’ve never forgotten it. It stuck with me because it demonstrated the pervasiveness of popular culture, what a profound effect it has. People take their cues from it, even set their moral compasses by it. And since that’s the case, I’m more than happy to contribute to it.

I’m still doing my own, original work, too. And I’m still alive. Two years of borrow/reclaimed time so far and it’s still a party every day. Some days the party isn’t very noisy and we run out of party hats. But it’s still a party. ‘Getting older’ is another way of saying ‘still alive.’ And while we live, let us live. Even when the colour scheme for every day is dull grey and it’s cold and damp: every day above ground is a good one. There’s always good news, even if it’s only that there was no bad news.

That may sound like it’s setting the bar very low, but it isn’t. Not around this house.