Standoff With Cancer

Well, blood tests show the level of cancer hasn’t fallen this time. But it hasn’t risen, so it’s good news. In the last year, the decreases have been very tiny anyway. I met a new member of my consultant’s team today and she really liked my lucky shirt––i.e., ‘I’m Making Cancer My Bitch.’

Anyway, it’s green bananas all round until mid-October and as I noted in my previous update, I’ll be keeping very busy until then. If there’s even just a slight rise in the level of cancer at my next appointment, we get out the big guns and go all medieval on that carcinoma’s ass. 

And cancer is still my bitch.

Almost Seven Months Into Borrowed Time & It’s Been A Busy Summer

I’ve just come back from two weeks at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where I had the privilege of talking to writing workshop students and attending the Campbell Conference, which this year celebrated my mentor and role model, James Gunn. I haven’t said half enough about James Gunn, who was the first to take my science fiction writing seriously and offered encouragement along with rigorous criticism. 

James Gunn is quiet in demeanour––well, much quieter than I am, certainly––but his effect on me was powerful. And it wasn’t just my writing. Later on, when I started teaching workshops like Clarion West, I followed his example: treat people with respect, talk to them so that they will listen even to the strongest criticism. 

Then there’s his devotion to science fiction itself. Not only did he found the first program for the teaching of science fiction, he also has a book out this year, the third book in his Transcendental Machine trilogy, called Transformation. And just FYI, he’ll be 94.

Jim would probably wince at my mentioning his age, not because he’s got a problem with it but because he’s the sort of person for whom age is nothing to make a big deal out of. He’s one of those people who is dignified without being stuffy, who wears his vocation and his years in a way I’d like to emulate. When I won my Hugo in 2013 at the San Antonio worldcon, I was so flustered and gobsmacked that I forgot to thank him from the stage, and he was one of the special guests. This will bother me for the rest of my life. No, seriously, it will. Jim has been good-natured about it, teasing me whenever I mention it. He’s a all-round great guy and I urge everyone to look into his work, both fiction and nonfiction. The Road To Science Fiction is a multi-volume history of science fiction.

Someone––it may have been Dena Brown, but don’t quote me––once said, ‘Let’s take science fiction out of the classroom and put it back in the gutter where it belongs.’ That’s okay if you’re around a lot of science fiction writers like Dena was, while she was co-editing Locus with her former husband, the late Charles N. Brown. But for someone like me, who grew up reading in the genre voraciously but without any knowledge of the writers or how the genre developed, Jim Gunn’s course in science fiction at the University of Kansas was an eye-opener. At last I had context for my favourite books and stories, and I could see how sf/fantasy/horror was unfolding and progressing. I was in the first class of the Institute for the Teaching of Science Fiction, not so much because I thought I was going to teach sf (although I might have), but because I wanted to learn even more from Jim Gunn about science fiction.

So it meant a lot when I was invited to talk to this year’s writing workshops and to attend the Campbell Conference. I was always going to be a science fiction writer but when I walked into Jim Gunn’s course in science fiction––with grad student teaching assistant John Kessel, no less!––I finally had the focus and direction I needed.

Also attending were a group of writers and editors from China: The Future Affairs Administration. It was a joy to meet them and with any luck, I might live long enough to visit them in Beijing. Science fiction has speculated on the human race making contact with aliens––we ought to try harder to make contact with other humans on our own planet, particularly those who don’t come out of the same Western (and white) tradition. I have some stories that have been translated but I’m going to be brushing up on my Mandarin (when I was at the University of Kansas, I was actually fluent for a while; unfortunately, after the course was over, I had no one to talk Mandarin with and I lapsed).

So that was most of the month of June.

Today I’ll be dropping by the Macmillan Cancer Centre for a blood test before I see my oncologist on Thursday. After that, I’ll know if I can resume buying green bananas.

In late July, I’ll be teaching the last week of Clarion West in Seattle, Washington. I do love Seattle and it’s been fifteen years since the last time I taught there. Clarion West go out of their way to give their students a diverse group of teachers. Yeah, that’s right, I mean they’re not predominately white males.

Some people may think this is too ‘politically correct.’ So call me politically correct––I’ve been called worse things. The science fiction writers who dream up the most outrageous futures and/or alien civilisations aren’t all white males and it’s about time aspiring writers can meet them and see that there’s a place for them. 

After all, if you don’t see anyone remotely like yourself in any given profession, you could get the idea that people like yourself aren’t welcome. Science fiction, more than any other field, should be all about diversity.

And if you want to argue with me about diversity, don’t even bother. Walk away now. If you have a problem with diversity, I hope you never visit London because you’d come face-to-face with diversity like you never have before. It’s a diverse world, sunshine; get used to it.

Okay, that’s July. Onward to August.

In August, I’ll be making my first appearance at Nine Worlds, which has invited me as a guest. I’ll be there with Jan Siegel, also a guest, on Friday and Saturday, 4 and 5 August. If you’re going to be there, come and say hello. My schedule should eventually show up on the Nine Worlds website. Right after Nine Worlds, I’ll be leaving for Helsinki, where they’re holding the first ever Finnish world science fiction convention. If you’ll be there, come say hello.

Which takes us to September and TitanCon! If you haven’t been to TitanCon, you’re missing out. Jan Siegel and I will be raising hell there, too. After which, there’s FantasyCon in Peterborough 29 September-1 October in Peterborough. As far as I know, Jan Siegel and I will be there as well.

In October, Jan Siegel and I will be in Milan, Italy:

Looks like fun to me. If you’re there, come say Buongiorno.

After that, I’ll have just enough time to rest up before the 2017 Gollancz Festival in November.  

As of today, that’s my 2017. I’m feeling energetic, strong, and optimistic.

Four And A Half Months Into Borrowed Time––

––and so far, so good.

I’ve just finished partying hearty at this year’s EasterCon, Innominate, held in Birmingham, sharing the GOH spots with artist Judith Clute and fan Colin Harris, one of those indispensable fans who, had he not been a GOH, would have been working on the convention himself.

This was a very special GOH line-up for me. My first British GOH spot was at a lively little convention called MexiCon back in 1993, and it was Colin who invited me. When I told Ellen Datlow about it, she said, ‘Hey, that’s great! I think I’ll come with you! We can stay with John and Judith Clute and take a side-trip to Paris!’

I had never actually met John and Judith, and I arrived some hours before Ellen. So I had the pleasure of ringing the Clutes’ doorbell and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Ellen’s friend Pat. I’ll be staying with you for the next two weeks, except for the time when we’re in Scarborough at MexiCon and in Paris.’ John and Judith were spectacularly welcoming to me and by the time Ellen showed up, we were all old friends.

That trip was remarkable for two other things:

1) My astoundingly ridiculous idea to rent a car and *drive* from London to Scarborough, having absolutely no clue that this would be nothing like driving in the US. I was brazenly unfazed at driving on the other side of the car *and* on the other side of the road, which was a mistake of ineffable proportions. What would have been a two-hour train journey became an insane eight-hour comedy of errors, the first 45-minutes of which was just getting out of Heathrow Airport, where I’d rented the car. The last 45-minutes was trying to find the hotel in Scarborough. In between, there was a twenty-minute period in which I could not find reverse on the stick shift. I took a solemn vow after that never to drive in the UK again. It’s been an easy vow to keep. My US license expired shortly after I emigrated in 1996 and I don’t miss it.

2) Meeting the Original Chris Fowler at John and Judith’s when he came to do interviews with me and Ellen for a magazine. Chris had written me beforehand asking if I’d hold still for such a thing; I blithely mistook him for Christopher R. Fowler, the author of so many wonderful things, including most recently (I think most recently) the Bryant and May books. Anyway, we straightened out the confusion before I got there and we got on like a house afire, to phrase a coin. We kept in touch; he wrote me wonderful, friendly letters. Maybe when you were in school, they tried to teach you how to write proper letters? Well, Chris is one of those people who learned how to do that. We became friends. A year later my life had changed completely; it was difficult for all concerned. Fortunately, it turned out that my friend and penpal was, in fact, my soul-mate and all concerned lived happily ever after.

Twenty-four years ago, Colin Harris innocently set all this in motion with a GOH invitation, and it all started to take shape in John and Judith’s flat in Camden Town. Over the years, Colin has been a good and special friend. It was Colin who called me in 2013 to tell me I had been nominated for a Hugo. That’s a great phone call to get but it means even more when you get it from a friend like Colin. He has continued to give Chris and me encouragement and support even when he’s had to deal with his own life. Likewise John and Judith; their friendship, like his, has been…ineffable.

Well.

Now I’m slowly pulling myself together, getting ready to go home after a terrific weekend playing with my friends. Including Amanda, aka writer Jan Siegel, who makes it really easy to have a good time. Amanda/Jan was my co-host for the Hugo Awards last year. At the time, somebody identified her as ‘the bimbo in the red dress,’ a description she continues to use proudly because really, when you’re in your early 60s and someone calls you a bimbo, hooray, you’ve still got it! But I digress.

Anyway, we had a great time on many levels. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would have been impossible to have a bad time––at least, not without a lot of effort, and I’m ‘way too lazy for that.

Still Making Cancer My B!tch

The level of cancer fell just a little bit more according to my oncologist but the celebration is somewhat subdued. I lost two friends this week, within days of each other. Yes, cancer. Worse, neither had cancer when I was diagnosed. One has been very ill for the last couple of years, the other had just turned 50. Neither was supposed to be terminal.

And that’s how it happens sometimes. You might get lucky; you might not. Living with incurable cancer, not in remission but stabilised for some indefinite period, might be as lucky as you’re gonna get. But that might be just lucky enough.

I’m not knocking it. Back when I got the Diagnosis of Doom, I decided I was going to make the best of the time I had left. Making the best of things is an old family tradition; Old Eternal (my late mother, for those who may be new) used to be an expert at it. Now here I am with what looks like a lot more time than my oncologist expected. As I’ve said many times before in this blog, I never actually believed on a gut level that I was going to check out in January 2017. 

At the same time, however, it’s a little spooky to think that, had my cancer followed its standard course––had I not gotten so extremely lucky––I wouldn’t be here now. And the two friends I lost were supposed to be living their lives as usual. John Lennon once pointed out that life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Truer words were never spoken.

A few days ago, I had started writing a post about survivor guilt. There have been a few posts I found very difficult and uncomfortable to write but this one was impossible. I have seldom written nonfiction; it’s really not my metier. I did write two nonfiction books in the late 1990s, one about the making of Lost In Space and another a year later about the making of The Mummy; they were assignments I lucked into and I think they turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. But I digress.

Survivor guilt is one of those things easier felt than explained––easier done than said, if you will. You can’t write about it without sounding like you’re fishing for comfort: Please forgive me for still being alive. You know people are going to tell you that you have nothing to feel guilty about. Except for the few whom you secretly suspect don’t forgive you.

Personally, I’ve always thought of survivor guilt as something suffered by people who have been through terrible catastrophes––natural disasters, mass transit crashes, explosions, wars. These people have been through extreme trauma and injury themselves. So claiming I have survivor guilt sounds self-aggrandising. The truth is, I’ve never been in pain and thanks to my family and my ongoing support system of friends far and wide, I’ve never felt alone or like I had no one to talk to. 

What I’m feeling is more like survivor embarrassment. It’s like this: you find out you’re terminal, and you make a big deal out of it, because what the hell, it is a big deal, to you anyway. Then, holy guacamole! Things take a completely unexpected swerve and it turns out you’re not as terminal as they thought. You’re not exactly well, not in remission, but you’re stable and you’re not leaving any time soon unless someone drops a house on you. (And even then, it would probably depend on the house.)

Well, I’m not the only person this has ever happened to. One example I’ve mentioned before is Stephen Jay Gould, who was given eight months when he was diagnosed with cancer and died twenty years later of something else. I never knew Stephen Jay Gould but I doubt he spent much time being embarrassed. But then, Stephen Jay Gould was a wiser, busier, more learned person than I am, with a lot more to think about. Dammit, I really did want to be a theoretical physicist/mathematician. But I digress.

This, too, is life. Life is a messy, unruly, smelly, chaotic crap-shoot and all roads lead to entropy. And, old reprobate that I am, it’s my idea of a good time. Green bananas all round!

Five More Shopping Days To Buy Green Bananas, or Recovery Is Never A Straight Ascending Line

By Valentine’s Day, I’ll have finished a month and a half of borrowed time. So far, so good, although the hormonal fatigue has come down on me like a 10-ton bag of wet cement.

You’d think fatigue would just be fatigue––i.e., you’re just too tired, end of story. But you’d be wrong. I seem to have become an expert as to the many different kinds of Fatigue.

Not Enough Sleep Fatigue: at one time, I could fix that with a pot of coffee but sadly, I can’t. I overdid it and now my esophagous suffers from chronic coffee irritation. The discomfort was so bad I actually gave up coffee for green tea. Then I discovered my problem was only with real coffee, the kind made from ground coffee beans. Instant coffee didn’t produce heartburn bad enough to make me vomit. I now drink instant coffee. There was a time when I’d have called me a Philistine. So I’m a Philistine; I can live with that. I have a secret for making instant coffee taste a whole lot better than it normally does. Still drink green tea; there’s a kind flavoured with pomegranate that’s as close to divine as tea gets. This is actually different from

Poor Sleep Fatigue: believe it or not, the quality of this fatigue really is different from Not Enough Sleep Fatigue, at least for me. Normally, I sleep like the dead––global thermonuclear war wouldn’t wake me. I’ve always been a deep sleeper, which has been enhanced over the last years by my evening anti-depressant medications. I was taking the hormone pills at night because I figured I’d sleep through the side effects. But apparently even I can’t sleep through night sweats. I would wake several times a night, usually because, having sweated and kicked off the covers, I was freezing. Then I was a zombie for most of the following day. Hoping my sleep would improve, I started taking the hormone pill first thing in the morning. Now I spend the better part of each day with the fan on but I’m sleeping all the way through the night, which has made a big difference in how much I can brain every day.

Depression Fatigue: I struggled with this one for years without realising what it was. At the last, before I gave in and tried medication, it was so bad that I could fall asleep at a long traffic light. Occasionally I had to force myself to stay awake in mid-sentence––my own. Later on, it would re-emerge when my medication needed tweaking. Some days I would wake up and realise that staying conscious was going to be a constant physical effort, and I shouldn’t sit it any rooms that weren’t brightly lit, or hold still for longer than ten seconds. It took years before my shrink and I finally found the meds cocktail that allows me to get out of my own way. (Some people handle depression without medication, some need the drugs, and of those, some need more drugs than others. If you need treatment, get it, and go with whatever works for you. Everybody’s different; one size does not fit all.)

Menopausal Fatigue (Ladies Only): If Hormone Replacement Therapy is contra-indicated for you because of a family history of breast- or gynaecological cancers, you’re just going to have to tough it out. I hope you have the support of friends and family. There are herbal and non-pharma alternatives to HRT too. One of my gps told me that Japanese women have so much soya in their diet, most of them breeze through menopause almost without even noticing. You can try over-the-counter soya supplements, along with things like black cohosh and evening primrose oil capsules. Or just say Fuck it and take a nap. By the time we get to menopause, we’re entitled to a little extra rest.

Chemo Fatigue: Being poisoned will wear you out. Rest as much as you can during the worst of it. Different people are affected to different degrees. I know one person who didn’t do things much differently during chemo than he did normally.  Other people felt as if they’d been slammed by a cement truck. I felt like I’d been flattened by the anvil meant for Wiley Coyote. 

Weird Exhaustion That Comes Out Of Nowhere Seemingly For No Reason: It’s a symptom. Go to the doctor for tests.

Hormone Fatigue: Please don’t make me get dressed. Please don’t make me think about getting dressed, it wears me out. If I can do it sitting down, I’ll do it but really, don’t make me get dressed. I’m serious. I don’t have the energy to get up and take clean underwear out of the drawer. Yes, the cat is in there but that’s not the problem. He’ll let me take anything I want. I just can’t stand up and walk into the next room right now. I’m going to the loo later.  What day is it anyway? Already?

I Haven’t Written Enough Fatigue:  Well, I haven’t. I’m working so hard and yet I’m not where I should be. It’s making me tired. (I bet I’m not the only one so afflicted.)

I know, reading about fatigue is what you want to do to get your blood flowing and make you feel like running a marathon, especially in February.

Personally, after declaring back in late November that every day would be Party Day, I thought I’d have a lot more zip, especially after completing my first full month of Borrowed Time. But no, I still have trouble finding enough energy for…well, anything. The 25th anniversary of when I quit smoking came and went. And now here we are, five days from Valentine’s Day, which is my last day to buy green bananas; it’s also one week before I need to get my blood test, and two weeks to the day before I check in with my oncologist. Which is giving me The Suspense Is Killing Me Fatigue.

28 February will also mark two months of Borrowed Time, aka Party Time. I’m not so exhausted that each day isn’t a life-savour, as well as a gift. As the old saying goes, that’s why they call it the present. 

(What, too corny? I’d have said the same thing before I woke up in Cancerland.)

Actually, I want to stop calling it Borrowed Time and call it Reclaimed Time instead. Because really, it was mine to begin with. But I don’t feel quite steady enough on this shifting terrain to go that far. Yet.

It’s My Two-Year Chemo-versary!

That’s right––two years since I started chemo, with the thought that I might have about that much time left, possibly less, according to the oncologist. No, that never seemed real to me. But as I get farther away from it in time, it somehow seems to become clearer what the medical professionals were telling me. But here I still am, two years later. I’ve got the form of recurrent uterine cancer with the worst prognosis and I lucked out.

I think I was probably more eloquent last year, on my one-year chemo-versary, when I was still coming to grips with the fact that I wasn’t halfway through the rest of my life and I could expect to go on living for an indefinite period. Well, here’s the going-on-living part, the quotidian. It’s short on confetti and long on general chores and maintenance, which is pretty much the human condition for most of us, or at least most of the people who would be reading a blog like this.

Last year at this time, I was so…moved by the fact that I was going to live that it was a few weeks before I could think straight enough to get any work done. I think I was more affected by the news that I was going to live than I was by the news that I had terminal cancer. Even now––I mean, I’m getting things done but every so often I still have a sudden moment of clarity, of being surprised by joy.

It’s still in the back of my mind always that life turns on a dime, so sharply it could give you a nickel change (but never does). 2017 could be as good for me physically as 2016, or it could turn around and bite me. My oncologist, that wonderful, down-to-earth woman who makes no promises, has changed my check-ups from every three months to every four––definitely a good sign. 

Regardless, everything still happens one day at a time. That’s all anyone gets, and if it’s above ground, it’s a good day.

Hi, I’m Not Dead Yet––Hahahahaha, Suck It, Mortality!

I’ve been studying up on quantum physics for the book I’m writing. I mean the hard science quantum physics, not the woo-woo-harness-the-power-of-the-multiverse claptrap that inevitably shows up when you search for genuine physics. Anyway, if there’s one word you could use to sum up the universe––there isn’t, actually, but if there were––that word would be indeterminate. It seems many physicists of the last hundred years or so have had a lot of trouble getting their minds around indeterminacy. Which is something I can’t get my mind around. I mean, considering how life turns on a dime (and could give you a nickel change but never does), I’d have thought scientists would intuit life is probabilities of the possible and non-locality would go without saying. But that’s just me, I guess.

I grew up hoping for things, and working hard for what I wanted, but never counting on anything. I always had Plan B through N in my back pocket and outlines for Plan O through Z in my other back pocket (Q, X, and Z were hilarious).

But that’s the thing: circumstance can land you in a state where plans aren’t an option; they aren’t even real. You get what you get and the only options are how you react to it, how you’re going to work around it, and how your priorities shake out.

Which is the long way of saying, I’m glad to be alive but I can’t help being a little nervous. I have now exceeded the original estimate of the time I had left. I’m not in any way surprised as it’s been obvious for a year that I would. And I still can’t help being a little nervous because, as the kids say, sh!t just got real. I knew I was going to do this. I never believed I was going to do anything else. But it’s no longer something in the future; now it’s put up or shut up: You’re on, kid––careful you don’t trip on your super-hero cape as you make your entrance.

Every day is still going to be a party. Every day is Anything-Can-Happen Day until further notice. Of course, every day is Anything-Can-Happen Day for everyone, not just me. Indeterminacy Are Us. But certain probabilities are a little higher for me and it’s the sort of thing that I can’t help being aware of, sometimes more so than other times.

It’s not going to spoil the daily party. I’ve spent a good part of my life confounding the odds so this is nothing new. 2017 starts with my buying green bananas for a whole month longer than last year, which in terms of my personal probabilities bodes very well.

And I still can’t help being a little nervous. Maybe that’s as it should be. When you feel good, you shouldn’t waste time feeling bad. But being a little nervous can keep you mindful, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Happy New Year.