In The Library

Vanessa Lafaye on Writing after Cancer

Vanessa Lafaye talks about how her cancer diagnosis shook her confidence in the future and how writing her début novel Summertime has helped to beat The Fear.

Everyone knows that having cancer, or any serious illness, changes a person.

No shit, Sherlock.

But now that I’ve had cancer twice, I’ve been pondering how the experience has affected my writing. My second course of chemotherapy for breast cancer ended five weeks ago. I’ve begun to recover physically, and contemplate Book 2. I can’t write yet, but I can think about writing. And that, as you will see, is a fairly momentous statement.

My first bout of cancer was in 2009. It came out of nowhere, with no family history or risk factors. I found the lump myself, during dinner one night. (Check yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. And then check again.) A few years previously, I had written two contemporary women’s novels, the first of which was about a group of ladies who all had breast cancer (oh, the irony). Neither was published.

During treatment—surgery, chemo, radiation—I clung tightly to my normal routine and kept my head down, waiting for it to be over. I continued working in my publishing job, I socialised, and I kept singing in three local acapella groups. All of these activities gave me great comfort and solace. But I stopped writing. Completely. At first, I blamed the physical debilitation, but eventually I realised that it was more than that. I had lost my facility with words. I had lost the urge to tell stories, something which I had done since the age of six. It was like they had excised the writing centre in my brain along with the tumour. It was profound but unfixable, or so I thought, and resigned myself to it while I raced to embrace ‘normal life’ again. I trained as a vocal leader and started a community choir. Music became my creative outlet.

And it isn’t until now, five years and another round of treatment later, that I have begun to understand why.

It takes an enormous amount of confidence to write—in yourself, in the value of your words, and the idea they will one day find an audience. For me, it also requires confidence that there is a future, and that I will be part of it. Writing is a long-term commitment, one that I couldn’t make any more. Some writers, especially in later life, are comforted by the idea of a legacy that will outlive them. That wasn’t true for me. It seemed premature and, frankly, melodramatic for an unpublished author.

Having cancer did more than shake my confidence in the future. Until the age of 46, I’d suffered no trauma on this scale before. I had struggled, sure, had some tough years like everyone else approaching middle age, but nothing like this.

It felt like a betrayal from the universe, which had seemed pretty benign until then. It made me doubt everything that I had assumed about my life. If this could happen—with no warning, no reason, no medical explanation–what else was out there?

And yet ‘Summertime’ exists. So what changed?

The answer is simple: I found my story.

In 2010 I stumbled on the real events which inspired me to write ‘Summertime’. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt the glimmer of a stirring of something that I thought was gone forever. Here was a story, a magnificent, tragic and—most perplexing of all—unknown story. I felt compelled to be the one to tell it. And my writing was different. More serious, in a good way. Like I had finally grown up.

And then the universe decided to show its dark side again. In May this year, just a few months after the excitement of the publishing contracts, a routine mammogram detected another tumour, in exactly the same place as before. The second time has been worse than the first, in terms of treatment and prognosis—and betrayal, because the treatment failed last time. But that now seems like a mere squall in comparison. This recurrence has been like a hurricane ripping through my life.

And yet, and yet…although I’ve still got a long way to go to recover physically, something is different this time. Despite all the horrors of the past six months, the writing centre didn’t get ablated. Of course, it helps enormously that I have wonderful support from the publishers of ‘Summertime’, and encouraging reactions from readers so far.

But it’s more than that. The ‘beast’ in the title of this post isn’t cancer. That’s gone…we think…but no one can be sure. The beast is the fear. Some days it whispers, some days it shouts. I now see that writing is my way of shouting back: I’M STILL HERE!

This post is the first serious thing that I’ve tried to write since my diagnosis in May. The wheels are creaky, but they are turning.

Summertime is out in hardback, eBook and audio 15th January 2015. Listen to an audio extract now. 

This post originally appeared on Vanessa Lafaye’s blog.

Summertime is out in hardback, eBook and audio 15th January 2015.

Vanessa Lafaye

Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida, where there were hurricanes most years. She first came to the UK in 1987 looking for adventure, and found it. After spells of living in Paris and Oxford, she now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband and three furry children. Vanessa leads the local community choir, and music and writing are big parts of her life.