This week my friend, Nicola Bourne, publishes her book "The Fabulous Woman's Guide Through Cancer". To mark its publication on the 18th November, I am doing a few posts this week about a few other fabulous women who have written about their battle with cancer.
My first interview is with Jackie Buxton who wrote "Tea and Chemo" which was published in November 2015.
At the age of 45, wife and mother Jackie Buxton was diagnosed with breast cancer. Lurching between the crippling fear that the cancer had spread, and the great comfort of knowing she was one of the lucky ones who could be treated, she did what she always does when life presents her with a challenge: she wrote it down.
Jackie quickly realised that even with cancer, life was far from bad. Never known for her scientific prowess, she nonetheless became a 'bit of an expert' - at least in the field of hair loss, water retention and biscuits - and decided to use her writing to share experiences and help others recognise you don't have to be defined by your cancer.
Tea & Chemo is full of laughter, tears, honesty and hope, and offers inspirational words to everyone facing the life challenges that cancer inevitably brings.
All proceeds from the sales of Tea & Chemo will go to three incredibly important charities, whose compassionate care and professionalism make the difference to so many lives: The Haven, Breast Cancer Now and The Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre, Harrogate.
Welcome Jackie and thank you so much for coming on my blog today to talk about your book and cancer experiences. It's great to have you here.
Could you start by just telling me a little bit about yourself and your journey into writing and becoming a published author?
I've always loved writing, even from primary school really. Then I went into a writing-heavy career of press and PR for charity, followed by freelance copywriting, all of which I loved. Nonetheless, there was this little chink in my head, tapping a way. It was the fiction writing itch that I had to scratch. On a transatlantic flight back from my honeymoon, my new hubbie, and everybody else on the flight apart from me, was asleep. I've never really slept on planes, I'm generally far too excited about the trip or returning home and when it's a big posh plane like this one, too giddy about all the films on offer.
I saw a picture of a tombstone and article about a pauper's grave in the free newspaper and right there in that moment, I was struck with the most vivid idea for a novel. I scribbled the idea down on serviettes (extras provided by the equally excited stewards and now I always carry a notebook) and I've been scribbling away ever since.
My first moment of fiction publication came with a short story about childbirth (eeek!) in an essentially humorous anthology of 'ordinary women's stories' and you could probably hear the shriek of delight at the other end of the street when I heard my submission had been selected for publication. I've had a few more short stories published, both in anthologies and magazines, and it always feels great to know your efforts will be read, and you pray, enjoyed, by readers. But the novel was the biggy for me.
The novel outlined on serviettes is in a drawer somewhere but my second novel was Glass Houses and this is the one I became particularly obsessed with. After initial rejections and further re-writes, often taking months, I'd started to amass a tidy pile of 'near misses' but more importantly, wonderful feedback returned with a rejection from publishers and agents. I studiously acted on this because hey, this was free help from the experts. It was gold dust. It's amazing how obvious the observations of new readers of your work are – in hindsight.
Flitting about on Twitter one day, I noticed a fairly new publisher kept popping up and this publisher seemed to have a great ethos, not to mention lots of fans. His tweets said that Urbane Publications welcome submissions.
Finally I found myself in the right place at the right time because Matthew Smith, the man at the helm of Urbane Publications, wanted to publish Glass Houses and also an idea for a self-help/ memoir which I'd submitted on a bit of a whim. That book became Tea & Chemo and more about that next…
What gave you the idea for a book about your experience of cancer?
Other people! I'd blogged for a year or so before being diagnosed with cancer in December of 2013, but didn’t imagine I'd be blogging about my illness. No, my blog was supposed to be about the strange, bizarre and generally amusing things that happen when you're just going about your daily life as a human, not the dark topic of cancer.
Meanwhile, I was really struck by the wealth of well-written and very informative information on cancer and its treatments and there was nothing which wasn’t covered either in person or in literature from the hospital. I'm very grateful for that. But there was something else I wanted to read and that was the stories from the patient's mouth. But I didn't just want any stories. I wanted the positive stories of people who'd had this thing, done it, got the hat (wig, scarf…) to show for it and emerged the other side, battle scarred, perhaps, but smiling nonetheless. I searched online and didn’t find what I wanted.
Jump forward a couple of weeks and I was starting to cope with this cancer diagnosis. I was very aware that after the initial knee crunching appointment in which the cancer bombshell was dropped, I was one of the lucky ones because the aim of my treatment was cure. And that's about as good as it gets when you enter this terrifying world of cancer where there are no definites. Buoyed by feeling so much better than when I was first diagnosed, I wanted to shout it from the treetops. I wanted other people to know that some normality does return fairly soon after a cancer diagnosis, that cancer is doable and to be heartened by this.
I decided to shout this from my blog. But I would only post when I had something positive or informative, to say. I enjoyed writing the posts, they helped me formulate my feelings about what was really happening to me and I received just the loveliest of feedback from readers both in comments on the blog, on Facebook and Twitter and in emails. Some people even suggested I should turn the blog posts into a book and I was chuffed, really chuffed that these people even contemplated such an idea. But I found myself asking why anyone would buy such a book when they could read the posts online. I also couldn't imagine how anybody would want to publish a book on cancer by little old, really not very good at science, me.
Sometimes people sew a seed don't they and you don’t realise it's taken root until it bursts into flower. And that's what happened with me. When I saw that Urbane Publications weren't just interested in stories but also in non-fiction, particularly memoir and self-help – ideas only at this stage please (even better) - I had to submit. I knew that if I didn’t try, I'd always wonder. Thus Tea & Chemo was born. My wonderful publisher and I quickly agreed that half of the book would be made up of my original blog posts and the other half would be further anecdotes, as, now a year following diagnosis, I had so much more to say.
What is the one thing you would like people to take away from your book?
Hmmm, tricky. Perhaps that a primary cancer diagnosis is 'not all bad'. It was nearing Christmas 2014, my active treatments had recently finished and lots of people said that they were sure I'd be glad to see the back of this year. I realised that my answer always revolved around the year not being half as bad as I might have expected and there were so many silver linings – seeing much more of my friends and family being right up there.
Nicola Bourne talks about making some 'fabulous changes' to her life once she had survived her battle with cancer. Did you feel anything similar? Did you make any fabulous changes to the way you lived your life?
I certainly did feel similar. Once active treatment of chemotherapy and radiotherapy was over and I was left alone with only a few daily pills to fight the big fear of cancer returning, I just couldn't imagine how cancer wouldn't come back. It seemed too powerful for anything my little body and those pills could offer. I've since learnt that this is really normal and when my oncologist told me that it would take time for me to regain trust in my body, he was absolutely right. Almost three years post diagnosis, I do feel much more confident that I may, just may, be ok.
So, I was really keen to make as many changes as possible to my lifestyle in an effort to take back some control in the big fight. The trouble was, I'm a right little goody-goody when it comes to diet and exercise. I just like healthy food and have always loved sport. I can't help it, I'm sorry I'm such a bore. And thus, search as I might, I couldn't find any monumental changes that I could make. I remember saying to people that I almost wished I smoked or had a fry-up every day because then I could give it up. Nonetheless, I've made some small but significant changes to my diet – which I stick to, most of the time.
But there was one monumental thing, standing out in lights, if you cared to examine my lifestyle.
Sleep – or a lack of it.
I've talked about this a lot in my blog and in Tea & Chemo and I really feel that I abused my body for years by depriving it of sleep. The more I read now about our bodies needing at least seven hours to have the time to fully repair the damage we've done during the day, or to fight the nasties which invade us all the time but a well-kept body will repel without us ever knowing, makes perfect sense.
The trouble is, I can survive really well without sleep and this was a great benefit to me as a writer. In the past, I'd hang around with my husband and children until they tripped off to bed or started nodding on the sofa, and then I'd creep up to my study and tap away on the keys until the early hours. It was when I did my fiction writing.
I spent time with my family, spent time with my stories. It was perfect, except in that I was regularly having only four hours sleep.
With great conviction but a slightly heavy heart I've had to knock that routine on the head. It's so tempting to break my rule though, because I struggle with work-load as it is, before I even add in my own writing, and it's so tempting to forge on through so that I start the next day with a shorter to-do list. But I am committed to this lifestyle change, and though my sleepy halo slips from time to time, I regularly get seven hours sleep now, and very rarely only get four. It used to be the other way round.
Nicola also talks about the importance of feeling "fabulous" and in her book she encourages women to believe we are all fabulous, always, whatever we are facing. Do you have any fabulous advice about this?
There is nothing fabulous about me, truly. I'm just an ordinary girl who benefited from a wonderfully balanced upbringing. I thank my parents for teaching me that much as we might be the centre of their universe, we are not the centre of the universe. 'Good' and 'bad' things happen as we live our lives and the more difficult times can enrich us just as much as the good stuff. I have the ethos that it's unrealistic to expect everything to be permanently hunky dory, however, if you can learn to dance in the rain when the sun turns to storm, then you can know real happiness, even in the darker times.
Somewhere along the line I've learnt that happiness is not a 'thing', it's merely a matter of perception. If we try to live our lives seeing the positive in every situation – love and companionship is what I think of when I look back at my confrontation with cancer for example – then we might never know 'unhappiness'. Or, at least we might empower ourselves to put right the thing that isn't working to make us happier again. I'm not fabulous, I'm very flawed, but I am happy and always have been, even though I've had the knocks and curve balls we all have. I think taking control of our own destinies, rather than allowing ourselves to become victims, is where fabulous lives come from.
In your opinion, can you tell me who you consider to be a fabulous woman?
So many! I think that all my close friends and family are pretty fabulous to be honest, but I do have one friend who has the most amazing, sunny outlook and she has been knocked so, so many times by disability, disease, disastrous relationships and real poverty in her life and in the lives of those close to her. The thing is, you would never know. Even when she talks about the things that are going on, she talks with such optimism, bravery and with the biggest smile on her face that you could be forgiven for thinking that she didn’t have a care in the world. She really is an inspiration of how to get the absolute best out of every day.
If it’s possible, can you finish by sharing your one top tip for fabulous women who maybe fighting cancer?
You can do this! Try to see the treatment in small chunks, rather than the big picture of beating cancer because that can seem way too enormous, if not, impossible, particularly when you haven't had chance to get used to this turn your life has taken. My father in law whispered to me in my ear just before going in for my mastectomy operation: A to B, B to C, C to D. Simple, but it worked for me.
Thank you so much Jackie. This has been a fabulous interview and you really are inspiring with your uplifting outlook. Thanks so much for answering my questions in such detail.
"Tea & Chemo" is available through Amazon and Urbane Publications.
For more information about Jackie please visit her website:
My review of "Glass Houses" can be found here:
My interview with Jackie about "Glass Houses" can be found here:
For more reviews and recommendations from me, you can find me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)