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HOW I FOUND OUT

Originally published at Sarah Rees Brennan. You can comment here or there.

At the beginning of this year, my best friend and I drove down the Great Ocean Road. We went around a curve in the road and I drew in my breath because the forests were laid out before me in a startling contrast of gold lace against shadow. The next moment I realised, with another quieter shock, that the shining woods were burned land and the bright leaves were ashes.

It was my first time in Australia, and I loved it so much that I planned to go back this winter. But for a while before that, I was enjoying being in Ireland with Loved Ones, etc.

MUM: So you’re getting ready for Australia.
SARAH: Yep, I bought ankle boots!
MUM: Cool priorities. You might want to see the doctor before you go, just for a check-up about being so worn down and that cough.

I went in for a quick check-up. I wasn’t all that concerned. Writers are just sick a lot: we have an awesome job, but we also have a weird job where you often overwork and keep odd hours and do not take care of yourself. A guy I know worked so hard he got shingles and lost his hair. One of my close writer friends got pneumonia and broke her rib coughing. I got pneumonia from overwork four years ago, and since then have had recurring bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia, depending on my luck! So I went to the doctor and was like ‘Check me out, not to brag but I haven’t had bronchitis since February and it is September, but if you could do something about the persistent cough that would be great.’

Away I went. A few days later it was my birthday, and my phone rang. I was asleep, due to being a lazy toad who regularly wakes up at I’m-too-ashamed-to-tell-you o’clock. I flailed about in my bedsheets and seized the phone, assuming muzzily it was a Loved One with birthday wishes.

SARAH: Hey, sweetie!
DOCTOR: Er, hello… this is your G.P…
SARAH: Hey, er… doctor sweetie… I just feel very close to you since the thermometer incident… No. Uh, why are you calling?
DOCTOR: So your haemoglobin is half the haemoglobin of a normal person’s.
SARAH: Huh.
DOCTOR: I would never have thought you were as sick as you are when I saw you!
SARAH: I cannot say you have a soothing bedphoneside manner, doctor.
DOCTOR: Go to the hospital. Soon.
SARAH: Okay, I promise I will. Soon!

And I did, though not that day, because it was my birthday and I had business calls. I was not very worried. Just a bad beginning to my birthday, thought I.

Then came the news there was a ‘shadow’ on the chest scan I’d done, and I hopped to the hospital. Best to get this sorted out, I thought!

SARAH: Hello hospital. Please examine and heal me.
EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR: We must keep you overnight! But we have no beds. Sleep on this shelf.
SARAH: Can I have a pillow?
EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR: *gentle laughter* She wants pillows. Oh child you dream of wild luxuries. Pillows are the first thing to go around here.

image.jpeg

Pictured: The Maiden’s Non-Pillow Book

DOCTORS: In the morning, we come to take your blood and give you a pillow.
SARAH: I’m comfortable with this blood/pillow trade.

The hospital was not too bad a place to be. I was given a bed. They constantly took my blood, which led me to suspect they were secret vampires, but they were all very cheery vampires and I trusted them. I did scans. In one scan I was hooked up to a long curly straw, which made me feel like a funky milkshake. Student doctors came by and asked to do tests on me and I chatted with them because I was bored.

STUDENT DOCTOR 1: This is cool, when we tap against your stomach we get a different sound than with an older patient’s.
SARAH: When I start a band, I will be the drum.
STUDENT DOCTOR 2: Oh yeah! I’ve never had this result from a living subject before.
SARAH: A—a living—doctors, please let me maintain my beautiful suspension of disbelief about where your hands have been.

Then a glamorous lady doctor came in. She had such an air, and her surname was Kelly, that I kept calling her Doctor Grace. Her name was not Grace.

Doctor Not Grace sat down my bed, and said in an intently sympathetic voice that they would have to do a biopsy, because this could be an infection or it could—just possibly—be cancer.

When I went to Australia, I went snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef.

Being submerged in a whole other element is funny because your mind keeps trying to compare everything to your own element: phosphorence in the water is like a whirl of cinders carried to you from fire by the wind and the tiny bright fish are like flickers of electricity. The coral becomes a dressmakers’ shelf full of ruched bronze satin and green lace and scarlet net. And when real-life comparison fails, you fall back on stories and you think you are looking at the White Witch’s garden: stone creatures, stone toadstools, stone ferns, stone lace, until a fern gives way to a scarlet ripple or a rock opens like a stone fist and an octopus unfurls to flee.

As the doctor spoke, I felt myself tip a little into another world, where things were not quite what they seemed and stories were slightly too real.

But I turned my face resolutely away and went ‘Hopefully it’s an infection! Yes indeed, biopsy away! Let’s get this done!’

In the theatre of surgicality, the doctor asked first—who had put the bands on my wrist and ankle, they looked ridiculous.

The trainee nurse still beside me had put on the bands. I reassured her with my eyes that I would never betray her secret.

Next he asked me to sign a form to say I consented to him doing the biopsy.

SARAH (knowledgably): Yep, I consent to you making a small incision under my arm to get the materials you need to test!
THEATRE DOCTOR: And if we can’t get what we need there, you consent to us going under the other arm.
SARAH: Sure!
THEATRE DOCTOR: And if not there, incision one side of the collarbone.
SARAH: Less sure but okay!
THEATRE DOCTOR: And if not there, incision on the other side of the collarbone.
SARAH: You do what you have to.
THEARE DOCTOR: And if not there, the neck.
SARAH: … When I wake up, will I be more sieve than woman?

As they were putting me under, I heard the doctor ask why I had nail polish on, and they explained they were gel nails.

DOCTOR: And why is one fingernail a different colour from the others?
SARAH’S LAST GASPING WORDS BEFORE CONSCIOUSNESS FELL AWAY: It’s a… signature nail…

I woke up. I only had one incision. This felt like a big win.

Hopefully, in a week, we would get the biopsy results back and I would learn I just had an infection!

I called my parents when Doctor Not Grace said it might be cancer.

SARAH: It might be lymphoma, Mum.
MUM: Oh great!
SARAH: Excuse me?
MUM: They’ll just pop it right out.
SARAH: With the… chemotherapy?
MUM: Oh.
SARAH: Yeah.
MUM: I misheard you before.
SARAH: Right.
MUM: Oh it’s not cancer. No. Not that.

I told my brother about it. Now, I have two brothers and one sister, all younger than me, all taller and blonder and altogether delightfuller, the apples of my eye. The oldest is my brother Rory, who has always helped me out—he kindly makes writing look like a safe responsible job in comparison to being a pro poker player.

The other two were out of the country.

My brother Saul had very recently moved to Bristol for his first job out of college. He was only just starting. He and I had shopped for business clothing weeks before and become bewildered and distressed among the bow ties.

image-3.jpeg

Pictured: Baby’s First Suit!

Then there was my sister Genevieve, who works in television but, even though she is a dazzling blonde, behind the scenes. She was in Costa Rica. She’d been saving up years for her dream to quit her job and go around the world. She’d only left a few days before.

image-4.jpeg

Pictured: She Is Not Wearing Make-Up, Thus Will Be Mad I Shared This, But Look How Stunning!

I told Rory it might be cancer, and I saw him look scared, and I felt my world try to tip away into that other, stranger world, and we told each other firmly that it was probably just an infection.

And then I told him we couldn’t tell the younger ones. They were so far away. It would freak them out. It was probably just an infection.

There was, of course, a small voice at the back of my head saying doctors don’t go around saying ‘cancer’ unless there’s a good chance that’s what it is. Doctors are a serious folk. They do not say these things to add a spice of excitement to the day.

I had been doing a lot of research on cancer, because my newest book (the treasure of my heart, which I am currently editing into shape because the treasure of my heart is super long!) has a cancer subplot: the heroine’s sister has cancer.

FRIEND: Do you feel like you maybe wrote this into existence, in a vaguely Stephen King flavoured manner?
SARAH: I’m not saying I have eldritch writing powers but soon I plan to write a short story about someone winning ten million dollars, just in case.

The research meant I knew more than I really wanted to.

And there had been warning signs.

I’d come up with excuses that seemed reasonable at the time, like ‘Must be low blood sugar,’ ‘am recovering from pneumonia’ and ‘am incredibly lazy, like a sloth and a tortoise had a little slotortoise baby.’

DOCTOR: You must have often felt like you could not move from the couch or do anything but read.
SARAH: Sure. Ah… Tuesdays.

I’d get out of breath faster than my friends, but I put that down to the lungs being in bad shape.

SARAH: Also wow it has just been too long since I did yoga.
BFF: It has been several years.
SARAH: Exactly!

And when I came back from Australia, I’d lost some weight. Now, I am a lady of plumpitude, due I imagine to the fact I love sofas and cheese and run only when chased or late for appointments and planes. I was surprised it had happened, but mildly pleased because people complimented me about it and I enjoy a compliment!

SARAH: I guess it’s sunny and beautiful here, I walk more, I eat better…
SARAH: I’m proud of me for living a healthier lifestyle!
SARAH: I’m going to repress all those memories of eating noodles at midnight…

Nobody’s fault, but this is a sad world in which weight loss is automatically seen as a good thing, especially if you are a lady of plumpitude. But friends, I was not walking that much. I was eating the midnight noodle.

I also had cold hands for years, but instead of worrying about those, I just put them on the backs of my friends’ necks and whispered ‘The touch of the grave!’ in their ears. I know they enjoyed this as much as I did.

I had some dizzy spells, and once I admit I fainted in a supermarket in Australia. I sat up, acquired a Lilt and a chocolate bar (which I paid for! Eventually!) and decided to take iron pills. I told my Australian cousins what had happened, and was puzzled when they seemed distressed.

SARAH: Ah yes, I looked a right idiot.
AUSTRALIAN COUSINS: You should have called us!
SARAH: Oh no. Oh that would have been silly! I was fine.
AUSTRALIAN COUSINS: You could have been hurt.
SARAH: Oh no, my fall was totally broken by the frozen broccolini. Lucky, right?
AUSTRALIAN COUSINS: … We love Irish Cousin Sarah, but we fear she is simple.

And I was cranky, and slow at work, but I put this down to being a lazy wretch with a black and twisted heart.

I put all the little worrying things down to a variety of small causes, easily solvable.

SARAH: Oh but your body just goes to hell in your thirties, right?
FRIEND: Sarah I am a decade older than you and you flag after a walk around the shops. Might be low blood sugar.
SARAH: Right. I’m going to start carrying a Snickers bar in my purse. But you know what will happen then.
FRIEND: You’ll feel weird and open the purse…
SARAH (nodding): And I will have definitely eaten the Snickers bar in a fit of greed several hours earlier.
FRIEND: Maybe you should carry nuts in your purse.
SARAH: But you know what will happen then.
FRIEND: You’ll feel weird and open the purse and be mad the nuts are not a Snickers bar.
SARAH (sadly): This is a painful dilemma.

All the little signs could have been just little things. Or all of it might be adding up to a big picture.

I told some of my close friends. My best friend came and visited with me all the time, in the week we waited after the biopsy. Only near the very end, gently and lovingly, did she suggest that I should maybe consider showering.

My friends who were far from me were also angels. Maureen Johnson, writer extraordinaire and now fancy pundit, sent me a massive box of brownies and iced lemon cakes.

RORY: I’ve come to visit the sick and I brought you a brownie—
RORY: I see I’ve made a bad call.
RORY: I also brought a banana because they are very healthy.
SARAH (coldly): I reject the banana and will not have it in my home. I will accept your brownie because it is an offering of love.
RORY: So now you have… a million and one brownies?
SARAH: That’s love, baby.

image (1).jpeg

Pictured: Let ‘Em Eat Cake

Later, I was told Rory must be very worried about me, because he hardly ate his turkey burger and broccoli. I reflected back on Rory the last time I had seen him, with one glorious brownie and one tremendous lemon cake in either hand.

‘Or perhaps,’ I said, ‘some mysteries are never meant to be solved.’

The day before the diagnosis, a beautiful hamper arrived. It smelled of lavender and fanciness. It had a robe and slippers and French soaps within. It was from all my writer friends I had told: Maureen, Holly ‘Beautiful Soul’ Black, Pulitzer finalist of my heart Kelly Link, redheaded queen of fancy loveliness Cassie Clare and the wise and wonderful Robin Wasserman. Even though I was far away from them, they wanted to make sure I felt looked after.

IMG_3572.jpg

Pictured: Woman Gloating With Hamper

And I did. And it was all going to be fine, really. Though I was slightly concerned as the week passed that my mother, a wonderful lady in many respects but a sharer with all the world, was telling a lot of people the news. The maybe-news.

I was really worried that my little sister or brother would get word of it, and freak out. I didn’t want them to fret. After all, everything was fine. Probably. Hopefully. Maybe.

I went in for my appointment with the doctor, Glamorous Not Grace Kelly. She was wearing a stunning dress. My parents were sitting on either side of me.

Yes, she said, it was cancer. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, very treatable. Definitely the cancer to pick, if you were going through a cancer catalogue. I would have an appointment with my oncologist on Monday, and did I have any questions?

The world tilted decisively, into that strange world where things I did not quite believe were nevertheless true.

‘Well…’ I said. ‘I would like to know where you got your dress.’

Dr Not Grace laughed and said I was something else. She did not tell me where she got her dress. I was only partly joking, Dr Not Grace!

My mother was crying. Dr Not Grace gave her tissues.

When we drove home, Rory met us at the gates. I went right to him, and he said ‘Well?’ With my usual smooth wordsmithing, I said, ‘Well, uh, yeah.’ Then I glanced up at him, and I said, very quickly: ‘Yes, it’s cancer.’ My brother’s a big guy, and strong in a lot of ways. He made a noise as if he’d been hit. I reached up and put my arms around his neck and my head down on his shoulder, and I believed I had cancer, and we were terrified.

I thought: I have to tell the younger ones now. I don’t know how I’m going to tell them.

I wanted to write this up, to explain why I might be out of commission at times, disappearing offline for stretches: to make sure it didn’t seem like I was just disappearing. I’d love it if people shared this post, to make sure word gets to everyone who might want to know, since I am low energy often and unable to tell all the people I’d have liked to tell individually. And I want to go on to talk about what happened and what will happen next, if people are interested: to have the experience be seen and shared and real. I never do quite believe in stories until they’re shared.

This is how I found out, and this is how I’m telling you.

Comments

( 69 comments — Leave a comment )
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connorblond
Nov. 6th, 2016 05:16 pm (UTC)
You made me love Draco Malfoy.
It was quite task.

Compared to that - this is nothing! You go, girl and get it done. :)
sleepinbeast
Nov. 6th, 2016 10:28 pm (UTC)
I am very sorry to read this. You are one of my favourite authors and your stories have helped me a lot when I was feeling conflicted or sad. I hope you will recover fully. I shall pray for your health and wellbeing as well as I can, sending positive thoughts and hope and all good things towards you. Lots of love!
yudinsoha
Nov. 7th, 2016 12:43 am (UTC)
Hi, I am a oncology nurse on an inpatient myeloma, (bone marrow) transplant, and lymphoma floor. If you are stuck with lymphoma, Hodgkin's is definitely the one to have. I have yet to see anyone with Hodgkin's sick enough to have to be treated inpatient. They all get treated in our outpatient center. Best of luck! Hopefully you only have minimal side effects from the chemo and radiation.
evelynlela
Nov. 7th, 2016 10:41 am (UTC)
You were in Australia? That's so close, if you come back to this side of the world maybe you can visit New Zealand, it is filled with less exciting dangerous animals, but we have flightless birds and rubble if demolitions and rebuilds appeal, which it probably does not and so I cannot blame you if you chose to skip my city, but if you were in the general area I could potentially meet you! Or you know pass out from nerves/excitement on the way there and have my friends tell me about how nice and brilliant you were or something.
I am very sorry that all the reasonable and logical explanations for the many little things that were out of wack did not sufficiently cover what was happening to you. Hopefully though this story will lead to better ways of managing all of those things and you will be in a better position going forth. Thank you so much for the explanation. It's so much easier to understand when someone is not around when you know why. Love you so much!
marie_j_granger
Nov. 7th, 2016 12:54 pm (UTC)
I am so very sorry to hear this, Sarah. You will be in my prayers. I love your books and your blog, and I know you will come through this with your usual grace and humor. *hugs*

Edited at 2016-11-07 12:54 pm (UTC)
swan_tower
Nov. 7th, 2016 06:27 pm (UTC)
Oh, man. I was reading through this and going "she's being so funny about it, surely that means it won't end with 'yep, it's cancer,' except I know enough about how you write that the little niggling suspicion isn't going away," and then . . . yeah.

I'm really sorry you're in this situation, but I'll keep my fingers crossed that it turns out to be very treatable and on the far side of all of this your health will be much improved.
areth_lovejoy
Nov. 7th, 2016 08:13 pm (UTC)
I am so very sorry to hear about this! Please, do share what you are going through. Sending you my prayers and best wishes.
waterbird
Nov. 7th, 2016 09:17 pm (UTC)
Sending you all the good thoughts there are in the universe. So sorry you are going through this.
airlight
Nov. 9th, 2016 06:52 am (UTC)
I love your stories and your books, and you have all my best wishes, and I really hope everything goes the best it possibly can. I'm so sorry that this is happening to you. I want to send you such good feelings and hopes and wishes for everything ahead.
mtranc3
Nov. 9th, 2016 11:46 am (UTC)
I hope your treatment goes smoothly, and I wish you strength and positivity to get through with it. I can understand how your family must be feeling a little bit, because my dad was diagnosed with bowel adenocarcinoma last January and he had surgery as well as chemotherapy for 6 months, and it was a very hard time for us all. I found that being patient, injecting a little humor, and being communicative with each other, instead of bottling up, helped a lot.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 10th, 2016 02:26 pm (UTC)
From the end of the world, all my love
Hi, Sarah, I just found you (author you), hopefully my next favourite author. So I absolutely forbid you to kick the hamper prematurely. I understand it's normally a bucket, but you might find your new hamper more handy. Well, don't. You heard me. No kicking. Everything aside, my father had Hodgkins, and he was fine for years afterwards. Chemo wasn't a picnic but you do have a hamper (see, another reason for not kicking it). He is no longer with us, but it wasn't Hodgkins which what that killed him. Actually, he stumbled over a bucket... no, I'm kidding. Hang on to your beautiful family and your brownies. All my love, from Chile. See, now you can say you have fans at the end of the world. I know, the world is round and has no borders, but supposedly Chile means "end of the world" in the language of one of the extinct local tribes. I can't confirm it, since, well, extinct, but whatever. Hugs and love, Pame.
elethoniel
Nov. 13th, 2016 09:20 pm (UTC)
Oh my goodness, Sarah. I have been a long time lurker (looooong time lurker), and your stories, published or otherwise, have always brought me so much joy. You blog has always been a source of joy, showing that pureness thrives wherever you spread it (or, really, wherever you are). Sending you all the support, love, and hope from my corner of East Sussex. We've got your back ♥
(Anonymous)
Nov. 13th, 2016 11:45 pm (UTC)
I care about you, dear Sarah
Dear Sarah,

Dear, sweet, friend Sarah. Dear Sarah, who inspired and encouraged me to write my own fiction. Dear Sarah, whose beautiful novels and stories I shared with my younger cousins, who once hated to read, and who now love to read, because of your special way of painting pictures with words. Dear Sarah, who got me on Livejournal. Dear Sarah, who taught me so much. Dear Sarah, whose scary fiction I would read for hours on end, until I looked out the window and saw a black FBI helicopter hovering just outside my window, and in a fit of panic, I shrieked, "They found me! They've found Sarah's fiction! they knew I was reading it! I'm done for!" (It turned out that Marky Mark, formerly of the funky bunch, was filming the movie, "Shooter," in the street just below. I ran downstairs and told the movie makers that I had not given them permission to film just outside my house and to frighten me so.)

Dear, dear, sweet internet friend Sarah. Thank you for sharing so very much with each one of us, your devoted readers and fans. Thank you for giving so much of yourself.

Take good care of yourself, eat lots of chocolate, surround yourself in soft fluffy bathrobes when you want to, and remember that we, each of us, love you very much.

Your work, and your believable heroes (and anti-heroes) have helped me so much: to understand myself and to be gentle with myself, and to remember to be compassionate to others.

Be well, rest well, get well.

Love always,

your fan Thomas, formerly known as SuZQ

(We've corresponded via e-mail, in the past, and you were always very gracious and kind, but I don't expect you to remember me.)
deardiary_xoxo
Nov. 17th, 2016 03:13 pm (UTC)
Sending Love
Hey! I love reading your stories, I have bought your books, but for some reason I have never commented. Just wanted to let you know I am sending love your way. You are fabulous and I am sorry for the bad news.
innerslytherin
Nov. 29th, 2016 07:41 pm (UTC)
Only you could make people laugh when delivering this sort of news. *hugs* Sending love and prayers.
kita0610
Dec. 11th, 2016 04:24 pm (UTC)
Kick its ass.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 30th, 2016 06:27 pm (UTC)
an old fan
I was just thinking about you earlier today. I first met you through your work as Maya, you know? So it feels like I've known you for a long time, and I've been cheering you on from the sidelines since I read that first chapter of your fanfic all those years ago. I'm actually working on my masters right now, working on a piece examining the cultural crossover from fanfiction into *traditional* media. And I think, I'm gonna catch up with this lovely person I *met* all that time ago, and who's work from back then til now has meant so so much to me.

I'm so, so sorry that you're going through this. I cannot imagine what you're going through, or how hard this is for you and your family and friends. There's not much that I can say about this, other than I really wish you all the best in your treatment. Idk, I don't know if you're religious or not, but either way, I'll keep you and your family in my prayers. Your work has touched so many people, and there are more people than you can imagine who have you in their thoughts. An illness like this can make you feel so alone, I know. But you aren't alone, and you can do this.

Good luck, Sarah. I wish you all the best.
moia
Jan. 3rd, 2017 12:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, no! I was so happy to see you've posted something, but now I wish you didn't have to share this horrible news. I am thinking of you and hoping for the best. Please focus on yourself and make sure you are as OK as can be.

When you can, when you are feeling well enough please let us know how you are as I know I will worry about you and I am probably not the only one. I am happy you have supportive family and friends.

(I am very late and only reading this now because I hardly find time to read LiveJournal anymore as I have two little ones and three sick old ones to look after.)

While reading I was thinking how can she possibly joke about these things and then my next thought was well, it's Sarah, of course she is. I love your sense of humour and that you are able to find funny things in unfunny places. Hang in there.
moia
Jan. 3rd, 2017 12:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, no! I was so happy to see you've posted something, but now I wish you didn't have to share this horrible news. I am thinking of you and hoping for the best. Please focus on yourself and make sure you are as OK as can be.

When you can, when you are feeling well enough please let us know how you are as I know I will worry about you and I am probably not the only one. I am happy you have supportive family and friends.

(I am very late and only reading this now because I hardly find time to read LiveJournal anymore as I have two little ones and three sick old ones to look after.)

While reading I was thinking how can she possibly joke about these things and then my next thought was well, it's Sarah, of course she is. I love your sense of humour and that you are able to find funny things in unfunny places. Hang in there.
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