HOW BEATING CANCER MADE ME A NOVELIST by Chris Calder
Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’m glad I had cancer”? Probably not, but I can truly say that if I had not been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, it is unlikely that my life would have taken the course that it did.
After we retired, my wife and I moved to the Limousin area of central France. We bought an old stone house with an adjacent derelict cottage. Modernising the house and renovating the cottage to make it suitable for holiday renting was the aim, and we achieved it within the first year. As we settled into an active and healthy lifestyle, augmenting our pensions with income from renting the cottage, we believed that we could look forward to enjoying our tranquil rural idyll for years to come. But just when we thought that life could not be better, the bombshell dropped. I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in my bladder.
My doctor had confirmed that test results indicated a problem, and I was given an early appointment with a consultant surgeon. He explained that I would need an exploratory operation to establish the size and location of the tumour, followed by a course of chemotherapy. If the tumor had seeded, I would need a second operation to remove the infected organ entirely. In that event it would be carried out after completion of the course of chemotherapy. The consultant was commendably frank; exactly what I preferred.
“It is cancer,” he said, “a very aggressive type.” While I was still reeling from this, he added, “But we will beat it, together.”
After a few moments’ thought, I asked, “What will happen if I don’t have the chemo?”
He shrugged. “You’ll die.”
I wanted the truth, so I had no problem with that. “OK,” I said, “let’s get on with it.”
The first operation took place eight days later. I was admitted to the hospital on a Wednesday evening, and the op was scheduled for the following morning. OK, I thought, the “nil by mouth” wouldn’t be for too long.
The following morning I was prepped and ready by nine o’clock, and told to stay in bed. Later I was told there were delays; I might have to wait. OK, no problem. So I waited and waited, until half past one in the afternoon. I was finally taken down, tummy rumbling like distant thunder, just when I had begun to wonder if I might make medical history as the first person ever to suffer bed sores whilst waiting for an operation.
Numb from the waist down, I watched on a monitor screen the whole procedure as it happened. Fascinating. All done, the anaesthetist departed and the two theatre nurses started to move me from the table onto a bed, as they do. Routine stuff, I thought. At that point I was still hooked up to several plastic tubes connected to various parts of my body.
The bed was drawn alongside; it was slightly lower than the operating table. One nurse took hold of my feet and the other put her arms under my armpits. With one extended hand, she started to fold down the safety rail on the side of the bed. It stuck. So she tried again, then (with me in mid-air) watched in horror, as the bed slowly drifted away on its castors.
Panic! The nurse yelled, the surgeon sprinted around and took over from her, supporting my front end. Meanwhile my recumbent horizontal form very slowly started to dip in the middle, becoming U-shaped, drawing forward the little nurse hanging onto my ankles. (Now I swear to you that I am not making this up.) Thereupon the first nurse, also a small person, with commendable presence of mind, immediately fell to her knees and, on hands and knees, positioned herself strategically directly under my rear end.
Voila! Position stabilised. On the count of “Un, Deux, Trois”, everyone heaved my inert form upwards. For me it was the most unnerving feeling, trying to help by “hoicking” myself, to find that I simply could not get my body to move. I could not hoick. Dead from the waist down, literally a dead weight.
With me finally bundled unceremoniously onto the bed, everyone relaxed. The surgeon, fortunately for me a fit young man, was ashen. “Sorry”, he apologised, “the bed broke.”
Next morning propped up in bed, I tucked into my breakfast croissant and a bowl of coffee, my first hot drink for two days. It felt like the best coffee I had ever drunk. Then for some inexplicable reason I sneezed a mighty AAAA-TTISSHH–OOOO...and my (hitherto) permanent implant of two front teeth flew out and disappeared into the rucked bedclothes!
I spent the next two weeks recuperating in the hospital; reading and thinking. Watching television wasn’t an option because at the time, my command of the French language was, frankly, awful. But I had plenty of time to think. That was when I had the germ of an idea for a novel, based loosely on some of the more interesting and arguably bizarre stuff that I had experienced in my working life.
Over time, the structure of the story began to take shape. My chemo sessions were carried out in the out-patients department of a Limoges hospital and getting there, having the treatment, and getting home again took up a whole day. Much of that involved hanging around, so I had plenty of time to keep working on the story.
A week after my final chemotherapy session I was back in the hospital for the major operation and spent two weeks in recovery. I had the time and the motivation to flesh out the story and a few months later my novel Payback was published. Since then, I have written four more. Not bad for a septuagenarian, you may agree!
Now completely clear of cancer, I am enjoying my extended life, pursuing my new career. The whole experience has left me with a permanent feeling of deep gratitude for the gift of Life. I’m not one for platitudes, but if there is a moral to this story, perhaps it is this: Cancer, even in its most aggressive form, is no big deal. I am, literally, living proof of that.