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Cancer in Fiction

If you follow my blog regularly, or even if you’ve read my books, you’ll know that I had cancer as a teenager. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which attacked 5 different organs. Now, most of that sentence would be a death sentence in medical terms. When you break it down, Stage 4 means quick-progression and seriously-advanced, while Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is actually more common in 65 year-olds and more likely in men, so it doesn’t sound all that positive for a 15 year-old female.

However, I lived. I got chemo and intense treatment, I was well taken care of and watched over and I’m here. I’m still attending yearly Oncology appointments, because of a trial research program that has since been modified, to prevent after effects from the treatment.

So, what does this have to do with fiction?

Everything.

As a writer, I’ve used my own experiences to write a memoir. What you don’t know is that I’ve also written two young adult novels about it – Without You and The Burden of Secrets – the first of which is free on Wattpad. (Though, beware! it’s in serious need of editing) You can also read my memoir for free on Wattpad, or buy it from Amazon – An Unpredictable Life.

So why am I talking about it here? Because, recently, someone asked a question that got my hackles up. They asked how many people knew that stage 4 cancer was terminal. This from a medical professional. Now, I understand their question and that it’s research for their novel, to figure out how detailed to be in explaining the “fate” of a Stage 4 cancer patient. But there is where I get mad. The assumption is that every or most Stage 4 cancer patients are doomed to die.

Now, sure, I saw a lot of people in the cancer ward when I was being treated. Having my own room and often confined to it for my entire stay, I didn’t get to socialise, but I knew they were all having cancer. I never got to find out the fate of any of them, because I was shielded from that part of it. However, I survived. And, years later, I attended Maggie’s where I saw many, many other teenagers like myself, who had kicked cancer’s ass as well. I wasn’t well at the time, so I never engaged in talking about their cancer or their stages, since that would have been downright rude, but they all had pretty serious after effects that implied serious treatment.

In my own writing, Without You has a tragic ending, while The Burden of Secrets is more closely linked with my own story. I did this to show both sides of the coin; life and death.

What really upsets me is this view that most of the world has about cancer. It’s a killer, sure. It takes many more people from the world than it should and I know that. I’ve lost half a dozen people, literally, who were close to me and my family, through cancer. Most were actual relatives. But so many people read about it, see it on TV etc and believe that it’s a death sentence (no matter the stage).

Unless your character is actually going to be told their cancer terminal and will die, please don’t use the word. I was never told I would die or given a time limit to live. “Terminal” wasn’t even a lost thought inside my head. It just never came up. Though this is only my experience, I don’t know any doctors who would give this negative information to someone. As they say – a positive mind is a healthy mind and can help you through treatment. Telling someone they will/might die is like telling them not to bother fighting anymore. For some people, it’s a chance to live their final days/months to the max and they really take on that challenge. But, for others, it’s Hell. It’s a mental pressure and it weighs them down until they can’t take any more.

Personally, I hate the “no hope” message that is so often given about cancer. It inspires people to think they’re going to die, with or without treatment. And, in real life, I know that my own relative refused treatment for their cancer, because they’d “heard” what chemo did to a body and thought they were terminal regardless. They actually told me that they didn’t know how I’d got through the treatment, but that I’d been young and, since they were old, they weren’t willing to try.

I often wonder what would have happened if the world stopped acting like cancer was an indiscriminate serial killer, who was never caught and never failed to claim a victim. So many times I want to smash my TV, because there are adverts on that practically rub salt in the wound – insurance policies, donation pleas, over 50’s plans, wills and so much more all exploit cancer as a way to get people to sign up. They broadcast people’s pain and the deaths of those who have fought cancer and died, to convince you that it’s so deadly that no one will ever escape. “One in four” is the saying. Well, we’re a family of four. Between my mum, my dad, myself and my sister – the four they advertise – two of us have had and beaten cancer. Both different types, different stages and different treatments.

Cancer is a serial killer. But it will be caught. One day.

Until then, can we not spread fear and panic through our words? Can we not convince people that a diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence, just because they’ve heard the word “cancer”? Can we give hope and encouragement instead?

I know that not everyone survives. I know that cancer touches us all, in one way or another. But, having fought that battle, I’m determined to spend the rest of my life fighting a new one. The belief that cancer is slowly killing everyone who is diagnosed.

It didn’t kill me. And it might not kill the next person.

If we don’t have hope, then we’re letting cancer win.

So please, if you write about cancer in your novel, don’t let negativity take hold. Don’t tell your readers the same thing they’re being told in all other media – that cancer is a death sentence and no one can escape. Giving hope to your characters – letting them live! – is not going to change the truth about how awful cancer is. But it might just give hope to one person who really needs it. Who will read your words and think “I can fight this”, if this brutal killer ever knocks on their door.

Words are power. Let’s use that to our advantage.

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