A Blade of Grass: Launched!

It’s here! And it’s a beaut: bursting with sharp, fresh and tender poems, and well and truly launched at a sell-out event on Thursday Nov 16th at P21 Gallery in London, a contemporary arts centre dedicated to the promotion of Arab culture. Thank you to the gallery for hosting us, to the University of Chichester for promoting the event with a press release to national media and a banner article on their website, to Andy Croft of Smokestack Books for training it down from Yorkshire for the gig, and most especially to poets Mustafa Abu Sneineh and Farid Bitar – who journeyed from New York City especially for the event – and translators Katharine Halls and Waleed Al-Bazoon for their depth-charged readings from A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry.  Thank you also to everyone who came and made the launch such an uplifting occasion. While I was thrilled to realise that, in fact, I personally knew only about a fifth of the audience, it was tremendous to welcome friends in the crowd, some of whom had supported the book through the crowdfunding campaign, which raised £240 each for the legal campaigns of poets Ashraf Fayadh (jailed in Saudi Arabia) and Dareen Tatour (jailed in Israel). I thank also Rob, Keith and Lily in Brighton, who gifted me a stunning bouquet of roses, sunflowers and wild grasses to get the celebrations off in style, and it was a great pleasure to meet a young lad, William, from Farid’s hostel, who came along out of curiosity and shook my hand firmly after the readings, thanking me for the enlightening evening. My belief is that poetry provides a way in to the Palestinian narrative for people who know little about it, or get ‘turned off’ by the news – and William’s response was a heartening confirmation of the power of the lyrical word. Altogether it was an magical night, brimming with faith in humanity and art: I’m still relishing memories of dandling Mustafa and Rebecca’s little Eskander on my knee, and admiring Farid’s pop-up exhibition of spacious, wind-blown paintings, drawings and calligraphy, which he brought over the ocean in his suitcase. Also unforgettable was hearing Andy Croft read British poetry the riot act, and listening to the panellists field ‘heretical questions’ about classical meter in a pan-Arab context!

On a more sombre note, I’m glad too that I could honour an absent translator, the late Sarah Maguire, an award-winning poet and the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, who very sadly died on November 2nd, the day before the book was published. I read Sarah’s translation of ‘The Lost Button’ by Fatena Al Ghorra, plus the last lines of her own poem ‘The Grass Church at Dilston Grove’, which seem to herald the anthology, as well as foreshadow our loss:

Everything the grass has asked of me
on this earth, I have done

except give myself

except lie
under its sky of moving roots.

(From The Pomegranates of Kandahar)

Sarah has fulfilled that ultimate task now, but in giving herself so passionately, in life, to the cause of poetry in translation she has left a vital legacy, cracking open the bastion of British poetry to plant the seeds of human empathy and understanding across geopolitical and linguistic borders. Always a great friend of Palestine, she died on a date of enormous significance to Palestinians, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the UK government so wrongfully promised to support the creation of Israel in lands inhabited by other people. As I go forward, as the editor of A Blade of Grass, to help challenge the ever-escalating results of that disastrous document, and make this a century of justice for Palestine, I humbly feel I am picking up her grass-stained baton.

This is just the beginning of the festivities for A Blade of Grass. I’ve already had interest in 2018 events from New York, Cairo, and Jerusalem, and will be organising readings also in Brighton and Chichester. My dream is for all of the living contributors to the anthology to be able to read at an event, so hopefully the book’s other translators Josh Calvo, Raphael Cohen, Tariq Al Haydar, Andrew Leber, Wejdan Shamala and Ahmed Taha and poets Fatena Al Ghorra, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Fady Joudah, Deema K. Shehabi, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marwan Makhoul, Sara Saleh and, when they are freed, Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour, will all have their turn on stage. For now, should you wish to buy the book, you can order it online direct from Smokestack Books, or at bookshops in the UK or North America – and, hurrah, the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem!  xxx

Here I am with Mustafa Abu Sneineh and drawings by Farid Bitar.

With Farid Bitar

Waleed Al Bazoon and Farid Bitar

Reading from A Blade of Grass



Fuzzy happy people – poets and editor celebrating in the pub!


Back home with my gifts from Farid Bitar: freesias for freedom, and my name in delicate Arabic


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Disappearance without absence: Book Launch on National Poetry Day


In my role as Associate Editor at Waterloo Press, I was honoured this year to help publish a book of profoundly moving poems, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña, by Néstor Ponce, exquisitely translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade. Written in honour of the ‘disappeared’, the book is a testament to those thousands of individuals targeted for death and erasure by Argentina’s military junta (1976-1983). Now on the shelf of every school and library in Argentina, its publication is part of an ongoing process of national and international remembering, mourning and justice-seeking. Thanks to the Sur Programme of the Argentine government, Waterloo Press is proud to enable English-speaking readers to share in this vital witnessing.

I am also very grateful to Elspeth Broady, a family friend and the Secretary of the Brighton and Hove Freedom From Torture Supporters Group, for offering to co-host the book’s Brighton launch in the Chapel Royal on Sept 28th – which, as we discovered later, just so happens to be National Poetry Day, with the theme of ‘Freedom’. It’s becoming an international local event already: Elspeth and her husband Chris Sevink are generously hosting Néstor Ponce on a visit from France, where he is a leading Latin American Studies scholar, while my friend Helen Dixon, who lived in Nicaragua for twenty-two years, has kindly agreed to contribute her considerable linguistic, cultural and political acumen to the event. Please join us all for wine, nibbles, a bilingual poetry reading, discussion and Q&A. I just *so* wish Max could come – but unfortunately the local crowd-sourcing just couldn’t stretch to a ticket from Massachusetts, where Max, a Borges scholar I had the pleasure of meeting at the Blind Creations conference, teaches Latin American Studies. But this is just the beginning of the book’s journey out into the world, and hopefully I will have the chance to hear Max read his stunning translations at some point in the future.

Thursday Sept 28th, Chapel Royal
164 North St, BN1 1EA Brighton
6:30-9 pm
Free entry, wine and nibbles, with suggested donations*

*Suggested donations: £6 entry to include a glass of wine.
All profit to benefit the work of Freedom From Torture.

Should you not be able to attend, the book is also available from me directly, or on Amazon.

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No Enemy but Time: A New Pamphlet of Old Poems

Being cured of cancer last year gave me a powerful sense of priorities. It seems that keeping up with this blog wasn’t one of them . . . Instead, in between a short course of radiotherapy and an unexpected return to hospital to treat a broken ankle (!), I’ve thrown myself into book production mode. Currently I’m finishing the final volume of The Gaia Chronicles for Jo Fletcher Books and editing an anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation for Smokestack Books, both of which will appear at the end of the year. In the spring I spent six weeks editing two collections for Waterloo Press, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña by the Argentine poet Néstor Ponce, translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade, and Gratitude on the Coast of Death, David Swann’s long-awaited second collection, which were published along with No Enemy but Time, my new pamphlet which I launched at the Belfast Book Festival in June. Launches for the two collections are being planned for the autumn, so I’ll save that fanfare, and for now just officially introduce my own new title.

No Enemy but Time is my tribute to my close friend, the Northern Irish poet, journalist and cultural activist Mairtín Crawford (1967-2004), and his quietly remarkable mother Flo (1939-2011). The pamphlet contains a sequence of poems in memory of Mairtín, most written in the wake of his sudden death; and what I have called ‘Some Loose Aislingi’ or ‘vision poems’ – a traditional genre in which a woman symbolises a dream of Ireland. The title of the pamphlet is a phrase from the W.B. Yeats poem ‘In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz’, and my aislingi include a lyrical response from the famous sisters, rebuking his denigration of their political work; as well as an homage to the linnet, a reflection on the Belfast peace process, and an oral history of the Falls Rd and the Troubles, as told to me by Flo.

The pamphlet was clearly many years in the brewing, and time did seem set against it for a while – I’d initially hoped to publish the poems for the tenth anniversary of Mairtín’s death, but the then-Irish publisher got sold, the poems languished, the momentum was lost, and then I got sick. Although I wrote a sequence of cancer poems during my treatment, as I recovered I felt an urgent need to bring these old poems into the light. My faithful collaborator John Luke Chapman – with whom I’d once co-authored a literary manifesto Mairtín published in his legendary magazine The Big Spoon – created a stunning cover photograph, and some more poems flowed. Then lo, just as I was preparing to ask Northern Irish poet Moyra Donaldson for a back cover quote, she emailed to tell me that the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast had just established the Mairtín Crawford Award, a prize designed to do what he did in his teaching, editing and festival directorships – encourage new poets. Although I was on crutches from my broken ankle, with the help of EasyJet special assistance, and time my friend again at last, I was honoured to launch No Enemy but Time at the prize-giving ceremony, where Mairtín’s friends read his own tender, playful and exuberant work, and the worthy winner, Rosamund Taylor, debuted her exquisite poems.

I hadn’t been to Belfast since 2010, and it was my first time back since Flo’s death. It was an emotional visit, that stirred some painful memories, but also deepened my connection to the city that Mairtín had first guided me through in 1994, the summer that my mother died. The poems about our relationship excavate layers of personal and political history, cross the ocean to Canada and New York, and ultimately look to the stars – Mairtín was an idealist and a futurist, an agitator and rebel who pushed every boundary out into the cosmos. It was heartening to hear from his friends that my poems brought them some closure and comfort, and I hope they also convey something of his magic to those who didn’t know him.




You were known for being obsessed
with space:

scored an arts grant to visit NASA,
sat in the cockpits of rockets;

wrote poems about Jupiter
and UFOs, Moonmen and Mir;

worried about asteroids
falling on our heads.

I read your cover story
― ‘Belfast Astronomers on Red Alert’ ―

foolishly believed myself
a little safer on the Earth.

No Enemy but Time (Waterloo Press) is available at The Crescent Arts Centre, on Amazon, or email me (enfoyle@gmail.com) to arrange postal or hand delivery.


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Farewell to 2016 – and Cancer

What a year. When it comes to traumas we’re spoiled for choice, but as Amnesty International and Greenpeace remind us, 2016 also brought many victories for humanity and the planet. Here at home, I’ve been celebrating the official All Clear, which clear as a bell, arrived with impeccable timing on Dec 23rd. I’ve still got follow-treatments to come, but to bid farewell to cancer, I’m looking back on ten books that have enriched my journey thus far through the ‘kingdom of the sick’. What should you read during chemotherapy? I like to laugh, sure, but in my frail state I also wanted to see my suffering and that of the world reflected with compassion and insight. Thus the themes of illness, migration and climate change flow through this list of poetry, essays and fiction.

Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2011). Spending five months on the strongest drugs Western medicine has to offer, it was hard to concentrate sometimes, but I took as my motto a line from Julia Darling’s poem ‘Chemotherapy’: ‘I have learned to drift and sip’. And thus in the stark nights of chemic insomnia I read poetry, sipping of its beauty and truth. This Costa Award-winning collection treats subjects ranging through breast cancer, war and modern architecture, Shapcott’s deft allusive touch encompassing the world with airy room for the imagination to fly. The wonderful extended metaphor of ‘Uncertainty is a Not a Good Dog’ – no, it rushes ahead and rolls in the mud! – helped me accept the new psychological terrain I had just entered. I can get a little frustrated (understatement!) with English understatement, but sometimes the problem is with readers, not the poet. The Guardian reviewer didn’t get the answer to Shapcott’s ‘Riddle’, which you didn’t need to have had chemotherapy to solve – it was placed opposite a poem called ‘Bald’.

Excisions by Clare Best (Waterloo Press, 2011).  Aware she was carrying the gene for breast cancer, Clare Best had an elective double mastectomy in her forties and declined reconstruction. Instead, tracing her journey in graceful, lucid poems, while fully acknowledging her grief at losing her ‘sentenced flesh’, she embraced the opportunity to lie closer to the earth, and feel her heart beat closer to her husband’s. I helped edit this book for Waterloo Press, and had seen photographs of Clare’s serene new shape. Having the imprint of her experience in my mind helped me to accept the possibility of mastectomy, and I turned again to the book immediately after my diagnosis. I can’t quote more because I recently gave my copy away to another woman contemplating elective surgery, but writing this blog reminds me to reorder it for myself – an essential title for my library.

Writing My Way Through Cancer by Myra Schneider (Jessica Kingsley, 2003). Combining a journal of the author’s experience with breast cancer with her own poems and writing exercises, this sensitive and rakingly honest book helped calm my own struggles with anxiety, and encouraged me to move between experience and vision in my own poems about the illness. Although I didn’t in the end need a mastectomy, it was encouraging to read of Schneider’s journey to acceptance of her new ‘Amazon’ shape. And I loved her poem ‘Choosing Yellow’, which in ranging the spectrum of this colour of sunshine and jaundice, gloriously evokes the paradox of coping with cancer: ‘a bittersweet colour / which feeds emptiness in the middle of the night, / a state of mind that refuses fear.’

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) This collection of essays by the late African-American poet Audre Lorde, who died of breast cancer in 1992 fourteen years after her diagnosis, was invigorating, bracing and sobering to read. Lorde, like my late mother (who died of colon cancer in 1992) had a mastectomy but refused chemotherapy: while I respect everyone’s right to choose their own treatment, as someone who was helped far more than harmed by chemo I can’t help but wonder if, even though far more arduous in the nineties, it might have helped them both survive. But cancer is a personal journey, and seeking alternative treatment in Germany, Lorde trod her path with famous dignity, eloquence and leadership. Refusing reconstruction because she didn’t want to deny her encounter with mortality, or conform to cultural norms of female beauty she didn’t, as a Black Lesbian identify with, Lorde challenged the medical establishment in important ways. When being prepped for a possible mastectomy, I’d been told that silicon implants can impede the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs, and when I read that Lorde was told by a nurse to wear a softie next time she came to the clinic because the sight of her asymmetry was ‘bad for morale’, I completely felt her rage. I also fully understood how her decision to own her scar empowered her: “Yet once I face death as a life process,’ she wrote, ‘what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again?”

Becoming Earth by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2016). These autobiographical essays by a marine biologist about breast cancer and nature were another difficult read at times: knowing that the book didn’t have a happy ending, and being unsure what direction my own treatment was taking me in, I had to take long breaks between sections. But I was always drawn back to Saulitis’s fiercely delicate reflections, ranging from her youth in her home state of Michigan, where she grew up feasting on pesticide-coated fruit; and her work in Alaska, where she and husband observed a pod of orcas that hasn’t calved since the Exxon Valdez oil spill; to her own body in its state of rapid decay. Thanks perhaps to Saulitis’s involvement with Buddhism, the dominant mood is not anger, though, but elegy and acceptance. Whatever its cause, cancer, an overgrowth of cells, is not itself a pollutant but an entirely natural process – an insight Saulitis evokes in the image of a glut of dead salmon. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over . . . In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein (Oversteps Books, 2016). As you can imagine, I quite often wanted an escape from cancer stories, and this collection beguiled me with its tender family truths, and restful long lines. In its careful respect for a temperamentally sensitive father, there is a touch of Robert Lowell about Klein’s sequence ‘Seen From Below’. Her highly regarded political poetry is well-represented here, but poems rooted in personal history also have a global reach: ‘Tisch’ unpacks a word that will keep a family ‘. . . stuck together / when the bombs begin to fall.’ As a writer of the long poem myself, I also much admire the way Klein summons mystery from her wealth of well-orchestrated detail – keeping up a rhythmic soft-shoe between her lyric and narrative impulses.

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (Penguin, 2007). I wasn’t grief-stricken by Cohen’s death – he achieved a great age and had lived a charmed life. But in paying my respects and expressing my affection, I turned to his poems as well as his songs. Sometimes this book annoyed me – with his obsessive pen-and-ink self-portraits and endless lamentations over unattainable young women Cohen seemed too content to milk the myth of the solitary male genius, refusing his Muse greater empathy with a wider humanity. But then he rises to the summits of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, a song that always makes me think of my mother, or attains the simplicity of ‘Mission’, a poem that could be his own eulogy. Cohen being the first to ruefully acknowledge his own flaws, this book ultimately makes loneliness, baldness and poetry seem worthwhile endeavours – all very reassuring for a single writer on chemo. Plus ‘Something from the Early Seventies’ was hilarious!

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press, 2015). Emily Jeremiah, a friend from my MA I worked with at Waterloo Press on her Finnish poetry translations, achieved great success with this short novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker International this year. It deserved it. A spare translation of a historical novel about the 1867 famine in Finland, in its harrowing portrayal of starving peasants trudging through winter toward the mirage of St Petersburg, the book evokes the determination of today’s refugees into Europe from the South – and their pain. Just when you think the agony in this book can’t get any worse, it does. Like the futuristic novel it resembles, The Road, there is redemption of sorts in the end, but no glimpse of hope can erase the ghosts of those who did not survive. Reading White Hunger, like watching the news from Syria or Calais, was a humbling experience: what was my suffering in comparison? The book was also inspiring, though: by bringing the anonymous dead to life, literature can indeed connect the reader with all of humanity.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, 2014). For those lucky enough to have homes, long novels and chemo go together like sofas and snow, and this absorbing, informative, lyrical epic gave my side-effects an enormous sense of purpose. I learned a huge amount from Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu’s reflections on race in America, and was riveted by Adichie’s sharp yet compassionate eye for complexity. As plot devices Ifemelu’s pursuit of the perfect rich feminist husband, and celebrity status as a blogger had a slightly fairy-tale quality, but at the same time these dreams come under lucid scrutiny in the book. The narrative, and Ifemelu’s achievements, are also driven by trauma, and being an African woman in an individualist, racist and sexist country both gives her depression and allows her to acknowledge that mental health is not just a white Westerner’s concern. Her own well-being – and her desire to win back her remarkably patient (and married) heart-throb Obinze – demands that she return to Nigeria and create a successful life there on her own terms. Meanwhile Obinze’s sudden launch into the country’s wealthy upper echelons is shadowed by his failed attempt to live in Britain – a chapter in which Adichie makes a powerful case for emotional migration: the freedom to move where we please.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Penguin, orig 1924). God, I loved this book! As I faded into skin and bones, it was such an pleasure to sink into a seven-hundred and fifty page novel in which illness is the norm and self-enwrapment in blankets an art-form, or at least a Winter Olympic sport. Amused at first by young Hans Castorp’s self-regarding priggishness, I was ultimately moved by his long journey to become a sensitive mediator between his passionate friends, history and art, life and death. Like my cancer, the TB sanatorium became, for Hans, a spiritual retreat. The book also charts the build up to the first world war and although in my chemo fog I couldn’t follow all the arguments of the novel’s two voluble scholars (who between them trample the supposed differences between East and West into a bitter frenzy of intellectual envy), Mann’s nuanced portrayals of Hans’s milieu – the ‘East’ represented here by Russian and Jewish characters – throws rope bridges of humanity across politically engineered fault-lines. Finally, as a new inhabitant of the Kingdom of the Sick, I found Mann’s insights into illness still ring true; as one character opines, the awe people hold for sick people is misplaced:

For the sick was precisely that; a sick man: with the nature and modified reactions of his state. Illness so adjusted its man that it and he could come to terms; there were sensory appeasements, short circuits, a merciful narcosis; nature came to the rescue with measures of spiritual and moral adaptation and relief, which the sound person naively failed to take into account.

Cancer and chemo became my new normal in 2016, and I accepted my condition because I had to. I honestly don’t mind people telling me I am ‘inspirational’, but to end this list, and 2016, on a note of traditional resolve, I would be best pleased if that took the form of quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption or eating more vegetables! Happy New Year, everyone – and may more and more people tread the path of health, love and peace in 2017.

Posted in Book Reviews, Cancer Journey, Environmentalism, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

From Indeterminate Cats to Interfaith Cathedrals

From Schrodinger’s Cat to Salisbury Cathedral, Prague castle to the Princess Royal Hospital, my cancer journey has come full circle, back to a strangely euphoric, possibly disease-free state. As I wrote in June, in the days just prior to my diagnosis, I felt both terminally ill and joyously alive; now, having just had an operation to remove four lymph nodes and a sphere of breast tissue at the site of the vanished tumour, but not yet the results, I will spend the weeks until Dec 23rd in a state of far gentler uncertainty. The best case scenario, as my oncologist put it, is that yesterday cancer and I parted company – I left the hospital by the front door, and any cancer cells remaining in my body after the chemo were sent on their way to the lab. The worst case scenario is that all four nodes will be found to be diseased and/or cancer cells are found at the edge of the breast tissue (rather than safely isolated in the centre). If so, another minor operation will be needed, to remove more nodes, and/or a small slice more of the bap.  After all I’ve been through so far, these are not traumatic possibilities.  Recovering from surgery in my peaceful private room at the Princess Royal yesterday, I felt filled with a enormous sense of peace. I am now, or nearly am, cancer-free. And at the same time, all I’ve been through has enabled me to contemplate without panic far more difficult outcomes. To quote, if I may, my own poem ‘Winterpause’ about the German chanteuse Nico: ‘The winter sun has won her foggy struggle with the cold.’


I’m currently resting again, willing my eyelashes to grow back, and reflecting on the weekend: a post-chemo, pre-op energy window that framed me as traveller in a more familiar sense. Thanks to the kindness of the organisers, who drove me to Salisbury, I was able to attend the Muslim Institute’s annual Winter Gathering at Sarum College, an ecumenical conference centre just opposite the magnificent Salisbury cathedral. Last year I was invited to speak on my approach to Islamic SF, after which I became an MI Fellow. This year I attended as a guest, enjoying the company of activists and intellectuals from all over Britain, and hearing talks on the theme of ‘Blessed Are the Innovators’. Or are they? One hard question that arose was whether humanity has embraced change for the sake of change, heedless of the consequences for all living beings and the planet itself. Having dealt with Windows 10 and Outlook upgrades during my cancer treatment, as a result of which ‘improvements’ none of my devices can communicate with my laptop anymore, and I am no longer able to conduct a Keyword search on my university email, I am more inclined to that view than ever before!

It was hard to feel despairing though, in the presence of a group of people so deeply committed to dialogue and progressive values that a un-ironic Muslim singalong of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was a highlight of the Saturday Culture Night. Another unexpected moment came in a talk by anti-extremist activist Usama Hasan from whom I learned that Wahhabi-Sufism is a thing – it turns out ISIS have hijacked not simply Islam but the sect of Wahhabism, the austerities of which can, as Usama’s life work proves, be lived in the context of love for all. It was in that deeply Islamic spirit that I felt welcomed again by the Winter Gathering. On Saturday night I read a new poem about cancer, healing and gratitude, ‘It Takes A Global Village’ joining a line-up including hard-hitting, big-hearted rapper Mizan the Poet, and multi-talented Hodan Yusuf-Pankhurst, who in her role as Reporter in Residence captured me reading from my tablet – for the second time, and for the second time having the text disappear from the screen as I stood in front of the audience. This time at least it had the courtesy to do so before I began reading! (I do say I’m an SF writer because I hate IT . . .)


As well as sharing powerful poems about race, refugees and belonging, Hodan tweeted, photographed and Storified the weekend in lavish detail. Please do check out the link – there’s a lot there, but while you may not be able to follow every thread, scrolling through gives a great flavour of the weekend, including the halal Full English breakfast! As my university department’s Equality and Diversity Champion, I was especially excited by the discussion of ‘inclusivity’ in relation to the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, a volunteer group who hold mixed-gender Friday prayers led by female Imams in various venues including interfaith churches. To paraphrase co-founder Naima Khan, being inclusive does not mean preaching a type of inclusivity, but housing it – letting people define themselves, and asking them to refrain from judgement of others. She and Imam Halima Hussain described holding Jummah (prayers) in a way that reminded me of the Quaker meetings I attended as a child – creating a sacred space in which everyone is allowed to speak without fear about whatever is on their mind. There’s so much to look forward to exploring when I’m fully recovered, but on another full circle seems a good place to pause . . .



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‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ . . . and Fascism


I’m home from a weekend in London where, with the help of wonderful friends and a small wheelie suitcase I celebrated the end of chemo by taking a few baby steps back into the world beyond Brighton hospital clinics – and a big breath of freedom before my operation on Dec 6th. Thanks to the success of my chemotherapy cycles, during which my tumour disappeared, this will be minor day surgery on my lymph nodes, but still, my first time under the knife: I will be spending the next couple of weeks mentally and physically building calm strength.

The weekend was a great start in that direction. Saturday night I saw the musical ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ at the National Theatre. A musical about cancer, featuring dance numbers with people dressed up as tumours in weird glitzy knitted costumes . . . what an outlandish idea, but it so worked! Also featuring interwoven true stories by turns touching, humorous, sinister, heartbreaking; tunes ranging from funkadelic to country to tap dance; a set that developed cancer as the show went on; and a script that took big risks with the ‘fourth wall’, the show’s proof of success was the unembarrassed audience participation at the end, creating the palpable atmosphere of a shared deeply personal experience. Add to this a diverse cast, with three women of colour, two white working class male characters, several female doctors, and a small actor whose height became an integral part of some stunning choreography, and this radical musical firmly occupied places far more theatre ought to be going – challenging cultural narratives as much as exploring individual stories. My one main wish was for more script and shorter songs, as the character conflicts came alive most for me through dialogue. But overall, riveting – my three friends who have seen both all rated it higher than the current King Lear. (With the caveat that Glenda Jackson herself was phenomenal – I so wish I’d been able to see that show too!) Highly recommended, though if you can’t afford to go, but you’re on the South Bank while it’s running, do pop into the Dorfman Theatre lobby and watch the moving and informative video interviews (subtitled) with the cast, creators, researchers and real-life people the characters are based on.

I’m still tired and weak, so didn’t race around galleries. The rest of the weekend was spent being pampered by friends in cosy homes, catching up on poetry, travels and the state of the world. Although I haven’t been participating in online discussions lately, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about the giant steps the world is suddenly, rapidly taking toward fascism. In my last blog, I celebrated the loving kindness I’ve been shown by so many people during my alchemical treatment by posting an image of a Rose Window by another Toronto friend, stained glass artist worker John Wilcox. You might think I’m understandably looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses – but in fact my experience being ill is leading me to believe the opposite: that when we lead from the heart, and  put ourselves in the service of beauty and healing, we create powerful collective resistance to the sickness that is violent intolerance of any kind. Thinking about it further this evening I realised that fighting the world’s current slide into fascism and healing cancer both require determined and organised commitments to:

1) challenging corporations that poison the planet with dangerous chemicals
2) ensuring safe food (organic plants and well-treated animals)
3) making that food affordable (economic justice)
4) priority public spending on health and education, with strong awareness of how some socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to disease. Black British women, for example, are twice as likely to die of breast cancer than white women, mostly for reasons of late diagnosis, so public health education needs to be better at reaching these women.
5) valuing every single person as an individual with sovereign rights over his or her own body
6) gratitude for the gifts we all – scientists, cooks, exercise boffins, artists, thinkers, mystics – bring to the table.

Well, I guess that’s my 2017 cut out for me then! Oh, and maybe some knitting and tap dance lessons too . . .


Posted in Cancer Journey, Disability, Environmentalism, Equality and Diversity, Politics | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

A Farewell to Chemo: With Fireworks!


First, a blockbuster blossom: last Monday I got the results of an MRI scan taken after my fourth chemo session, and it showed NO CANCER in my breast. Why hasn’t she mentioned this before, you may ask? Well, like Bob Dylan after his Nobel Prize announcement, I was speechless. Even though my surgeon had been confident my tumour would shrink rapidly under Herceptin, its disappearance, two thirds of the way through my chemo treatment, was an extraordinary result.

The news was so incredible, in fact, that I couldn’t quite believe it. Maybe, I thought, cancer sort of comes and goes during chemo . . . Certainly, as the oncologist said, it wasn’t an official all clear – to verify what is known as a ‘complete response’, leaving not a trace of disease, the tissue has to be examined in the lab, which can only be done after the surgery to remove the titanium marker in my breast and clear my lymph nodes. My joy was also tempered by a barrage of treatment updates: while I might be well ahead of the pack, the SAS marathon of orthodox cancer treatment is only just beginning. In addition to the five years of hormone blockers I was expecting, I’ll have to have radiotherapy every day for at least three weeks in January, and a Herceptin shot, delivered at home by a nurse, every three weeks for a year. That Herceptin needle is big, and it hurts!

Still, although arduous, all that is infinitely better than having cancer. I celebrated quietly with a few friends, and planned to make an announcement after my final chemo on Oct 27th. Then came a setback. I bounded into the chemo unit last Thursday only to be told that my white blood cell count was too low, and I’d have to come back in a week. This was deflating, to say the least. The delay would set back my surgery date, perhaps interfering with Christmas travel plans. And perhaps, a small part of me worried, the delay would allow the cancer to start growing again. Frustrating also was the fact that I wasn’t given much information on how to help my white blood cells rebuild. I went back into research mode, and over the week, various people sent dietary information – citrus, selenium, zinc, all good – and the NHS dietitian recommended eating a lot of protein and washing fruit and veg extra carefully. And, because introducing new bacteria into the gut isn’t necessarily a good idea when one’s ‘infection fighters’ are low, she advised against probiotic yoghurt, in favour of the pasteurised ‘non-bio’ variety. I hadn’t been aware there was a difference, and having examined labels in the Co-op am still none the wiser. Anyone interested in keeping their red blood cell count high, by the way, may be interested to learn that the tannins in green tea can rob the body of iron, so it shouldn’t be drunk for two hours before or after iron supplements or iron-rich food.

Altogether, it was a lot of strange information to absorb. I felt a little low at times, to be honest, and got inordinately angry with the acclaimed Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation, which started by blaming Patti Smith for Donald Trump’s conquest of NYC, and only got more sexist, shallow and West-centric from there on in. (Syria’s Hafez Assad was quite a decent dictator until Henry Kissinger hurt his feelings, apparently.) I was too tired to post a review, but was glad to find this Theatre of Noise post, which articulates all of my criticisms, and more. Generally, I managed my fluctuating mood by reading, watching and writing more nourishing fare – more on my reading in a future post, I promise – and was especially happy to make a breakthrough in thinking about a character in Astra 4. I also rested, bought flannel pyjamas covered with foxes, birds and rabbits, was grateful for some gorgeous meals cooked by friends, listened to hypnotherapy tapes and Meredith Monk’s ancestral echoes on Composer of the Week. And before heading to the chemo unit again today I heard Jenny Murray interview Bryony Kimmings and Judith Dimant, the writer/director and producer of  A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, a new – wait for it! – musical about cancer I’ve got tickets to see at the National Theatre in a couple of weeks. For, as Women’s Hour discussed, and I’ve reflected on before here, when confronted with the barrage of challenges that is cancer treatment, how do we move away from the martial metaphors that imply those who die of cancer have lost some great battle with themselves?

Today, for example, the chemo nurses told me that while my white blood cells had rallied, they were still considered too low to risk more drugs. Was that my fault? No: I ate well, scrubbed my veg, and the rate of recovery is something I have little to no control over – though that’s a challenge to accept too. Should I have taken the news serenely, instead of wrestling with disappointment, frustration and worry for an hour as the nurses waited for the oncologist’s verdict? Perhaps I can just reassure myself those feelings are perfectly valid and normal, and be glad I had a dear friend with me to talk with about poetry and, not warfare, but his relationship with the blood-thinner Warfarin. In this way and others, I am trying to say ‘farewell to arms’. In that classic novel I have yet to read, Hemingway wrote, ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’ Stronger and more flexible, that is the way I’d like to emerge from this period of my life.

Fortunately, the oncologist said I could proceed today, prescribing a higher dose of steroids over the next ten days to help the white blood cells recover. So in this season of fizzing, bursting, banging surprises, one thing is finally certain, my chemotherapy treatment is over! Oh, and in case you’d forgotten after all this complaining – it very much looks like my tumour has vanished into the night! Huzzah!! And thank you again to everyone for your support, love and prayers. There will be a post celebrating all of you too soon, that’s is also for sure.

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Shelter from the Storm: Dylan Trumps Chemo

After the gusty gales of the past four months it was fabulous to celebrate turning a corner in my cancer treatment this Thursday night, when I read some new poems at the Red Hen/Pighog Pigbaby Rides Again poetry party, sharing a stage in the glamorous Paganini Ballroom of Brighton’s Old Ship Hotel with transatlantic barnstormers Maria Jastrzebska, Ciaran O’Driscoll, Hugh Dunkerley, Tom Sissons, Brendan Cleary, Red Hen Press editor Kate Gale and Pighog host John Davies. It being Day 8 of Chemo 5 I’d been worried I’d flag, but somehow my eyes remained open and my legs vertical til midnight – a taste of my new wild self, or perhaps I’d been turbo-charged by Bob Dylan’s surprise Nobel Prize.

As a balladeer, I take Dylan’s win as a tribute to oral literature which should not be honoured simply as the root-field of all poems and novels, but in its own right, as an living tradition. Last year’s crowning of oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, and the early laureateship of Rabindranath Tagore – best known as a poet, but also the author of over 2000 songs – demonstrate that Stockholm obviously agrees. As one of this year’s committee members said, ancient Greek poets used to sing their work – alone and accompanied by the lyre, hence of course ‘lyric poetry’. The ancient Greeks also used to recite longer works with the aid of a staff, striking the floor to the hexameter beat of their epic histories and myths. As the concept of the writer’s ‘voice’ demonstrates, all written literature is deeply historically entwined with oral expression. If Dylan’s songs, in the committee’s view, create “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, they do so often by engaging with American and European lyric poetry. He named himself after Dylan Thomas, after all, and who can’t take heart from the doleful and confessional Relationships have all been bad. / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.  But there are subtler resonances too. As I said in the intro to one of my poems, quoting the opening of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’:

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wondrin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red

this song certainly qualifies as an aubade, a song or poem for lovers parting at dawn (or in my case, a woman parting from her hair).

By invoking the importance of oral literature I don’t mean that every five years a lyricist or storyteller ought to win the Nobel prize, but if a songwriter has spent a lifetime in a constant quest to mine and transform many of the most significant songwriting genres of their historical period, in so doing challenging and transcending social barriers, and thus the very notion of ‘populism’ – think of how Dylan’s much-derided Christian period has been re-made supreme by the American gospel community – then that person is certainly deserving of the world’s greatest literary accolade. As to the cynical response that Dylan was honoured primarily as a Scandi rebuke to all things Trump, I listened again to Blood on the Tracks today – songs which, in plotting an imploding relationship, give conventional narrative structure a bitter twist of genius – and thought that one small measure of the album’s timeless nature is the prophetic ventriloquism of ‘Idiot Wind’. Consider the vainglorious misogyny of the opening verses and chorus:

Someone’s got it in for me
They’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick
But when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray
And took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks
And when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
People see me all the time
And they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas
Images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday
You had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years
You didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

These lines could spring like toads from the mouth of the Donald himself. (Compare ‘I can’t help it if I’m lucky’ to ‘I guess that makes me clever.’) Despite the continuing creepy echos of the current US presidential election, though (I noticed at the ceremony / Your corrupt ways had finally made you blind) the song’s not of course about a feud between two corrupt politicians, and in the last two lines the speaker displays a self-awareness of complicity in the train wreck that the average fascist sociopath could never reach – We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves. As many Americans can’t, due to the rampant greed of tax-dodging moguls like Trump. Not that there’s anyone quite like Trump, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest Clinton’s hawkish hard-lines and alleged misdemeanors put her in the same category as his vile, abusive, post-truth hater’s burlesque.

But back to the Greeks, for ages I heard ‘Idiot wind’ as ‘Aeolian wind’ . . . Aeolus being the ancient Greek god of the wind, perhaps the dust bowl Homer was deliberately pronouncing it that way. Whichever way that particular breeze blows, my chemo cap’s off to Mr Dylan – maybe the rumours are right and he’s a cantankerous workaholic, a nightmare to work or live with, but I’m glad that, as the song says:

At the final end he won the wars / after losing every battle.

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My Cancer Journey: Incubating Integration


Last week marked a major turning point in my cancer journey, and not just because I am now a) bald and b) receiving a so-called ‘wonder drug’ that will most likely save my life. It was also a week which brought great news about the progress of my treatment so far, and a welcome second opinion on my upcoming operation. In addition, I received my first Housing Benefit payment, and although it plus my sick pay does not cover my monthly outgoings, I also completed two applications for grants to help me cope financially during my illness. I’ve still got a long way to go before full recovery, but after four months of uncertainty, fact-finding, and fighting for physical survival, I finally feel able to move into a calmer and more internal healing relationship with my illness.

For although I have been meeting the challenge of my disease head-on – battling with doctors for Vitamin D and iodine blood tests, seeking expert advice on diet, supplements, water quality and environmental pollution, and researching big pharma, bad and good – I have also felt uncomfortable with the metaphor of the ‘cancer warrior’. Some cancers are genetic, of course, but at least 30% are lifestyle-related, the result of a weakened immune system’s failure to cope with the normal process of evicting disordered cells. My breast cancer, I believe, is a sign that I have been living in a way that is out of balance with my body’s needs, and to significantly combat that tendency, I need to integrate parts of myself that have been wildly out of equilibrium for years. Mindful that my writer’s life had become sedentary and red wine-fuelled, I have given up alcohol, adopted a much healthier diet, and – helped by a rebounder my sister gave me – have made attempts (as far as one can while undergoing chemotherapy), to exercise more.

Rebounding from Chemo 3

I know, however, that I need to address my mental health too. For decades my chronic depression and anxiety, although milder in recent years, have dampened my ability to take care of myself. Miraculously the depression lifted shortly after my diagnosis: suddenly my life force roared that each moment here on Earth is incredibly precious. But cancer is practically a synonym for uncertainty, and inevitably there have been times of worry and rumination too: old habits that I want to break for good. In Jungian terms, I need to integrate my shadow; in the Blakean phrase I desire to, as much as possible, “cease from Mental Fight” with myself. Right now I wish to lay down my cancer warrior’s Spear, and embrace a gentler identity as a journeyer, delving not only into the etiology of my disease, but also the inner realms of my psyche, exploring and accepting all that I find there. I do not aspire to achieve a static state of perfect calm – I don’t believe such a state is either possible or desirable – but having struggled for so long with anxiety I now would like to make peace with the unknowable; to let my ‘Shrödinger’s breast lump’ lead me to a place where contradictory or difficult possibilities can co-exist free of angst and fear and self-doubt. Over the last months, hypnotherapy, counselling, massage, meditation, poetry and literature and being in nature have all been incredibly powerful teachers for me on this path, and from now on I will be focusing more and more now on the invaluable lessons they are offering me. In so doing – in deeply relaxing – I will help activate my body’s innate and powerful ability to heal itself.

The psychic journey is always also a political and cultural one, and I expect to be making such wider connections as my travels into the land of cancer continue. For now, I’ll just share this week’s good news, which came in three doses. First, on Monday my oncologist told me my tumour was responding well to treatment, being no longer large and round, but – as I could tell myself – smaller and ‘sausage-shaped’; a shrinkage she expected the next three chemo cycles to accelerate. Currently I am scheduled for a mastectomy and lymph node clearance, but if the chemo can reduce the tumour size enough, just a lumpectomy may be needed. I’m prepared for whatever operation is necessary, but the less radical option would obviously be physically and psychologically easier to cope with, so the oncologist’s assessment was reassuring to hear. As a Stage 2 breast cancer patient, though, with 2 infected lymph glands, I have found it hard to accept my Brighton surgeons’ insistence on removing all 30 underarm glands. While my breast is just a decorative organ, my lymph nodes perform a vital function, helping to drain my lymph fluids and filter any infection present: without them I’d be at risk of lymphedema, a painful chronic swelling of the arm, and also would have no defense should the cancer return. During my research I discovered that in America the standard procedure for a patient in my position is now to remove as few nodes as possible, and on Wednesday, thanks to a recommendation from integrative medicine consultancy Cancer Options (a consultation paid for by the charity Yes to Life), I visited the Royal Free Hospital in London for a second opinion on the question.

I sat for two and a half hours in a windowless room, but hanging around all day would have been worth the wait for the surgeon, Mr Ghosh. He immediately informed me that he was in accord with the American convention, and as a matter of course would just remove the nodes that drain the breast, 7-12 in total, leaving intact those that drain the hand. That made sense to me, and vindicated all my insistence on this point. Then, in a completely unexpected bonus, having examined my breast, Mr Ghosh said that in his opinion my tumour would virtually disappear under the next chemo rounds; in fact he was so confident that I was on track for a lumpectomy he would put money on it. I left London elated, my wiener sausage of a lump suddenly feeling like a seventies hors d’oeuvre ready for the surgeon’s stainless steel toothpick.


After a few more weeks marinating in big pharma’s most potent cocktails, that is. Thursday marked the start of Chemo Cycle 4, an important day: after three rounds of a regime entitled FEC, this was the first of my three Herceptin plus Docetaxel treatment cycles. “FEC” officially stands for three unpronounceable chemotherapy drugs, though I prefer my friend Bernadette’ Cremin’s defiant interpretation: “FEC you, cancer!” Docetaxel is another chemotherapy drug, meaning it kills fast-growing healthy cells as well as the cancer, but Herceptin is a targeted drug, locking onto cells on the surface of the tumour. I’m taking this combination now because I’m among the 15% of British women whose breast cancer is at least in part caused by an excess of the protein HER-2 (this acronym not being a feminist statement, but shorthand for ‘human epidermal growth factor receptor 2’). An expensive breakthrough drug approved by the FDA in America in 1998, up until 2006 Herceptin was only available widely in the UK for women with metastatic breast cancer. Women in Shropshire and Wales protested against the postcode lottery for primary breast cancer patients, and finally the NHS agreed to provide Herceptin to all patients who need it. The drug is not a magic bullet, and can in rare cases cause heart damage, but it has considerably improved life chances for women like me, and I was very glad to see that big needle sink into my thigh – without also sinking into my crimson bank balance. Thank you NHS!

More common side effects of chemo are fatigue, nausea, muscle and joint aches, tingling palms, mouth ulcers and hair loss, which I had managed to delay during my FEC cycles by wearing an ice-cap to numb the hair follicles.  This doesn’t work for Docetaxel though, so as of this week I’ve had to relinquish my hair, and with it a sense of an old identity card.

Ice cap

In addition, chemo side effects tend to accumulate and certainly all of these maladies are now affecting me more strongly. So last week’s transformation of my breast cancer activism into a more reflective healing process has come at a good time (followers of astrology will not be surprised to learn that it coincided with Friday’s eclipse of the Pisces Full Moon, conjunct my natal Chiron.) This doesn’t mean that I am going to disappear. I remain immensely grateful for – and in need of – all the astounding help I am receiving from friends and family, from shelter in spare rooms, days out in the country, wondrous cooking and volunteer kitchen cleaning, to prayers and pagan rituals, diverting books, CDs and DVDS, homegrown wheatgrass, massage gift certificates, headscarf wrapping lessons and loving comments here and on Facebook. But at the same time I sense that over the next few months I will be withdrawing into a quieter space: spending less time online and more with people in-person, walking slowly, reading and writing. My operation will likely be held at the end of November, and while I won’t be counting my lumpectomies before they hatch, I will spend the intervening weeks incubating a renewed, rebalanced self: a woman who feels ready to go wherever her cancer journey takes her next.

'Sister Naomi' - hair and photo by Akila Richards

‘Sister Naomi’ – hair and photo by Akila Richards

‘Luna’ by John Luke Chapman

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Shrödinger’s Breast Lump

Real-size cat figure in the garden of Huttenstrasse 9, Zurich, where Erwin Schrödinger lived 1921–1926. Depending on the light conditions, the cat appears either alive or dead.

Real-size cat figure in the garden of Huttenstrasse 9, Zurich, where Erwin Schrödinger lived 1921–1926. Depending on the light conditions, the cat appears either alive or dead.

Trapped in a box with a radioactive particle that would inevitably at some point decay, triggering the release of a fatal poison, until the lid was lifted, Shrödinger’s cat was infamously (and ridiculously in Shrödinger’s mind – his thought experiment was designed to critique a branch of quantum physics) both dead and alive. The indeterminate feline was much on my mind earlier this summer, when I spent two weeks wandering the ravishing streets of Prague, in full view and undeniably alive, but psychologically in a state of impossible simultaneity: feeling both gloriously healthy and terminally ill.

In May I had discovered a lump in my left breast. My GP said it was mobile – a good sign – but also large and hard: worrying. An ultrasound revealed the lump was definitely not a cyst, and also discovered swelling in a lymph node. On the verge of a teaching job in Prague, I asked if I should cancel my trip, but was told no, I could get the results when I returned. The doctor at the screening clinic also breezily announced that the worst-case scenario was a lumpectomy, so I left the UK feeling dazed at the prospect of surgery, but relieved that the situation didn’t appear life-threatening. I told colleagues and a handful of friends. In Prague I bought a notebook with an Albert Einstein quote on the cover: Life is like a bicycle: to keep your balance you must keep moving. But I wasn’t expecting the travels that would be demanded of me.

A week into my stay in Prague, the clinic called to strongly advise me to come home early. The armpit biopsy had proved inconclusive and another sample from the lymph node needed to be taken; the nurse also wanted to schedule an appointment with a consultant surgeon. She wasn’t allowed to give results over the phone, but reading between the lines I deduced that the breast lump was malignant. Still, though, the delusional mind is a wondrous thing. Perhaps they were just being extra-careful, I told myself. I arranged for a replacement tutor for my class, and booked a flight to the UK, returning to Prague the following day. If I did have cancer, I reasoned, I wanted to spend as much time as possible in a beautiful city doing what I love before a summer consumed by some horrible treatment. As the week went on I surprised myself with how calmly I was responding to the unfolding situation. My dreams, my friends and the Tarot all said not to worry. But then came Sunday night at the airport, waiting for hours in a long corridor as no news appeared on the departure boards, and ominous text updates from EasyJet culminated in the cancellation of my flight. Prepared to sleep at the airport, I searched desperately online for early morning flights, but none would get me to the clinic on time. With the opening of a hole in the Gatwick Airport main runway, the ground was shifting underneath me, and panic bubbled up.

I made it to the appointment in the end, a day late, to hear the news everyone dreads. I had cancer, it had most probably spread to the lymph nodes, and my liver and lungs would have to be tested as well. And far from simply requiring a routine removal, the tumour in my breast was now too big for a lumpectomy, and unless chemotherapy could shrink it I would need a mastectomy. To top it off, I learned that my lymph nodes would probably be ‘cleared’ – all 30 in the area removed – putting me at risk of lymphodema, a chronic, painful swelling of the limb. My friend Lee who attended the diagnosis with me said I took the news calmly, but in fact I was paralytic in the face of a slow-motion avalanche. My mother died of colon cancer at the age of 52, and ever since I turned 47 two years ago – the age she was diagnosed – I’d been aware that part of me was waiting for this verdict. Although beautifully cushioned by friends, for the 24 hours after receiving the news I was frankly a complete mess. It also didn’t help that I had to get up at four am to catch a bus to Heathrow and a flight to Prague via Frankfurt, an airport itself beset by storms . . .

That was almost two months ago. Emotionally I’ve traveled a great distance since then. As well as the deep support of friends and family, without which I don’t know where I’d be on this journey, writing has been crucial to restoring my equilibrium. Finally, having cleared Frankfurt airport and secure on the plane back to Prague, I picked up my pen and Einstein notebook – and the fear that had gripped my guts since the diagnosis magically lifted. I realised at that moment that terror was not a mandatory response to my illness, and no matter how much time I had left, I didn’t want to spend it seized by the physical pain fear causes. I was of course nervous before the results of my MRI scan two weeks ago, but by then I also knew that whatever the verdict, I would have to keep living in the same way – establishing healthy habits, and maintaining a positive outlook. Very fortunately the scan confirmed that the cancer had not spread to internal organs, and my final diagnosis remains primary breast cancer, Stage 2, which is curable. That sounds good to me.

From the date of the diagnosis I have taken an integrative approach to my treatment, embracing both orthodox medicine and complementary therapies. I have conducted safe juice fasts when appropriate, though now I’ve started chemotherapy I am eating to keep my weight up – a balanced diet of plants, nuts, grains, pulses, and a little animal protein. I am also availing myself of therapies provided by Macmillan and the NHS and local charities: hypnotherapy, counselling, and even a personal trainer, courtesy of Albion in the Community, my local football club. Educating myself about the disease has been important to me, and now after telling as many friends privately as I could, I’ve decided to go public about my condition. For one thing, in this era of sharing, it felt fraudulent to maintain an ‘AOK’ online persona; but also, I’d like my readers to know why I won’t be as active as usual on the arts and politics scene for the next six to nine months.

The chemo is making me very tired, but at the same time I can’t maintain the sedentary lifestyle I had fallen into as a writer – I have to get out walking for a couple of hours a day, and take far more breaks from the screen. Sadly I’ve had to put my Palestinian poetry anthology on hold, and the final book in The Gaia Chronicles will likely be somewhat delayed. While I still read as much as I can about politics I won’t be able to take as vocal a role in debates as I usually do. But I am still as interested in culture, the environment and social justice as ever, with a new focus of my disease: I’ll be incorporating my research about cancer into my world view and my future work. I would also like to avail myself of the big love that’s out there on social media, and as well as occasional blog posts I will be starting a FB page tracking my recovery, checking in and updating people as often as I can.

I have realised already how blessed I am, in particular to have so many people offering me every possible kind of support. I just ask for people’s patience, as everything here is happening a little more slowly than I intend. But although she might be napping in the sun, do not fret – this Brighton cat is well and truly alive, and wearing a pedometer clipped to her tail.

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