I remembered what a terrifying bombshell it had been when I got breast cancer for the first time in 2007. I had no idea what I would have to go through, but it was not going to be good. I felt like I was about to get sucked into a black hole. I could not say that I was exactly grateful about having had a prior case of cancer when I got my second diagnosis of the disease in 2014, but it made the news somewhat less scary to handle, with fewer unknowns. By then, life had taught me some valuable lessons that were less than pleasant to learn.
I had recently completed my first book, Adulterer’s Wife: How to Thrive Whether You Stay or Not. A friend of mine who worked in marketing had told me that I needed something to follow it. “How about a CD-set of advice for wives of philanderers?” he asked, eliciting my groans of disapproval. “Or another book?” he suggested. I had written Adulterer’s Wife after discovering my husband’s infidelity to describe ways to get past the emotional tsunami and become a more complete, creative and joyful person—no partner required. I believed I had reached that point. I had done numerous articles and interviews about coping with infidelity, but did not feel I had another book in me.
Then I got that second diagnosis of breast cancer, and writing poured out of me like Delhi diarrhea. Thus Hotel Chemo was born. I kept notebooks in my car, in my handbag and by my bed to put down all the absurd aspects of cancer treatment I encountered and various things I wanted to write about. I would be swimming in the local pool and numerous ideas would come to me. Middle-aged and obviously approaching dementia (or maybe it was chemo fog), sometimes these ideas would have gone clean out of my head by the time I got out of the pool, so I wished that I could have swum with a notebook and pencil as well. Who knows what supreme pearls of wisdom I have failed to impart in this book because I lost them in the pool? I discussed my cancer with all kinds of people—friends, relatives, healthcare providers and complete strangers. They would frequently share stories with me, some concerning their own illness, some about people they knew. Many of these tales are included in this book, but the names and specific details have been changed in order to preserve anonymity.
Many cancer memoirs are dedicated to staunchly supportive spouses. Not this one. If you have breast cancer and your husband does not know how to cope, or worse, is unfaithful, he can be more of a millstone than a rock. The more I talked with other breast cancer patients, the more I heard that even loving and well-meaning husbands might have great difficulty dealing with their partner’s illness. For me, cancer on top of a cheating husband was a kick in the pants to make changes to ensure that whatever lifespan I had left would be more fulfilling. I would not deal with cancer as a quietly suffering saint. That was not my style. I would make sure my own needs came first. I was going to be a sarcastic cow and milk the hell out of my ludicrous situation.
Wow! I said to myself, look at it this way—I now had a chance to take about six months off without the hassle of having to deal with foreign travel. Of course, for any cancer patient, that assumes you can afford not to work while you are undergoing treatment and your enlightened employer is keeping your job open for you. I was fortunate to be able to take as much time off as I needed. So perhaps I could catch up on all the books I had wanted to read and the films I missed. I might even lose weight, without the expense of going to a health spa or fat farm. I also had the perfect excuse to drop any tasks I did not like doing—easy enough, apart from the minor detail of having to find someone else both capable of and willing to do them. Of course being sick can be quite a time-consuming business, and I might find that I had less free time than I had expected, but who knows? Maybe being busy with all that would make the process feel like it was going by faster.
So off I went on a wild adventure, being chemoed, nuked, plucked bald and bewigged, as well as planning what I would do if the cancer turned terminal. I had two main weapons to fight off the assaults on my body, mind and emotions. First of all, an eye for absurdity, based on a British upbringing filled with the razor-sharp wit of Monty Python. Secondly, I had an investigative journalist’s anal attention to detail, researching everything to the nth degree, taking nothing for granted and asking plenty of questions. I refused to be a victim. I wouldn’t give up sex. I wouldn’t give up swimming. I wouldn’t give up chocolate. Having a potential death sentence made me examine my life and decide what was important to me. I was going to take charge of my illness and use it as an opportunity to live the life I wanted, despite any brutal difficulties. I would keep assessing and evaluating the best ways to get healthy, both conventional and alternative. Nothing would be off the table.
I wrote Hotel Chemo to give cancer patients and their caregivers an in-depth, warts-and-all look at what to expect and offer some pragmatic ways to cope. if I had a friend with breast cancer, not only would I want them to read this book, I’d want all their friends and relatives to read it, because they will tend to be pretty clueless about what happens to a cancer patient.
Chapter by chapter, I describe the stages that a patient is likely to go through. The humor will help keep you reading, but I include some profound subjects that are rarely discussed, such as death and dying, sex and cancer, and the pros and cons of positive thinking.
I write about the options I faced and what I decided to do, but that doesn’t mean my choices are suitable for someone else’s circumstances. I have no medical training so I am not a replacement for the advice of your doctor. Some of the cancer literature I have read has been irritatingly preachy and I have tried to avoid that in this book. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate of women with non-metastatic early stage breast cancer is close to 100 percent. That being said, cancer can be a crapshoot and whatever treatment you undergo, whether conventional, alternative or both, there are no guarantees. How you deal with the disease is a very personal decision. Whatever choices you make, you are likely to be given a great deal of unsolicited advice about how you really should be doing something else from well-meaning but annoying people. If that happens to you, have them read the “Cancer Etiquette” section of this book.
Both Hotel Chemo and my first book, Adulterer’s Wife examine how to deal with adversity by using it as a catalyst to raise you up rather than be crushed. My aim is to inspire ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances to find ways to make their lives fulfilling, however long or short their time on this earth might be.