Yep. I’m talking about cancer.
No, I don’t have cancer. I *did* have it in my 20′s but thankfully we caught it at a very early stage, dealt with it, and have had no recurrences. Knock on wood.
But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m talking about cancer from a writer’s perspective.
Here’s the deal. I’m willing to bet that EVERYONE who reads this blog has someone they know that has either had cancer, has cancer or who was lost to cancer. That shit is pretty much everywhere. You can’t get away from it, sadly.
Cancer is everywhere. That rotten, no good, vile horrible infliction. My first real experience with cancer and understanding it on any level came in my teen years when I read Gilda Radner’s autobiography. Sure, I had heard the word whispered around before and yeah, we had touched on it in health class and of course, the second it came out that I am a smoker (oh…I’m going to hell, I know) I heard all of the cancer warnings all the time, from everyone around me who didn’t smoke. BUT I had never really known anything on a personal level about it. Gilda’s book, still one of my all time favorites was the first time I really had a feeling like I understood what someone going through major cancer issues was going through.
First hand was entirely different. At least for me. First of all, my cancer was caught early. And, it was not as severe as uterine cancer (like Gilda) or some of the other major ones for women. I did not have to have chemo or radiation, but I did have to have surgery.
There I was, in my late twenties, deciding to write a book. How completely exciting and at the same time, how daunting. I really had no idea what I was doing for the first bit. I started with a bare idea and just started to write. The story evolving as I went. Shortly into it, when I was just getting to know my characters, I realized that I needed something major and emotionally deep to happen to my main male character. What’s more major than losing a parent? And how does one accomplish this in a book when the even has to facilitate a huge turnaround in the emotional make up of a character? A quick and dirty accident wouldn’t do, because I wanted the readers to join Jack (my hero) on his journey. I wanted them to see where he had been and where he was going and I wanted them to see all the potential in him that I saw. In order to do that, they had to fall in love with the parent and see him through Jack’s eyes, and then go through the loss with him.
Cancer it was.
So, I decided to start researching various types of cancer. Coldly, but as I had to be as a writer, I was looking into types of cancer that a) hit males more than females, b) are hard to detect in early stages and easily misdiagnosed and because of that, c) are usually fatal. I found it. Pancreatic cancer.
It hits mostly men, it is usually missed in early stages and not diagnosed until it is in late stages and has a high mortality rate. Morbid, I know.
It was hard for me to get a doctor to talk to me about it seriously. Most phone calls I made were cold calls and most doctors assumed (before I could explain) that I wanted details about a patient, not about the disease itself. They refused. But, then I managed to get lucky and a couple of nurses at the cancer clinic where I used to live agreed to speak with me.
It’s funny, but when I was at the amazing day-long workshop hosted by The Toronto Romance Writer’s over the weekend, facilitated by one of my writing idols, Kelley Armstrong, she talked about research and how often so little of what is researched actually makes it into the books. This was certainly true for me with Autumn Violets. Kevin, Jack’s father, is a lesser character in the grand scheme of things, but he is important to the plot as is his circumstances with his disease. However, as much research as I put in to his pancreatic cancer, very little of it actually shows up in the book.
Likewise, the book I’m currently working on, Summer Poppies, the last of the series, has cancer rearing it’s ugly head once again, but it’s not the disease nor the research that is in the book, it’s the deeper parts of the character that are important, not how much I looked up about the mechanics of dying of a terminal illness.
Of course, as life goes, shortly before the book was getting ready to come out, a very dear friend’s father started to lose his battle with cancer. We were there with him and with the family and in the end, I was even blessed by his family to be at his bedside just moments after he passed. Nothing that I could have, or have since ever written was as profound as those moments. Nothing ever could be. Sometimes words do not work. And all the research in the world cannot possibly, truly explain what dying of such a disease is like.
I re-read my book, about a year or so after it was out and I can honestly say that I feel like I did Kevin justice. I even feel like I did the memory of Bill justice, may he rest in peace. Really, as a writer, that’s all I can hope for.