Funny thing about being a presenter – people think that you can talk in front of anyone, anytime, however big the gathering. And the thing is, when you’re presenting, news-reading, even ad-libbing, you’re doing it down a camera lens. You are thinking, often, about broadcasting to one person (they can change, but they’re often my Mum, or someone who’s written or contacted me).
So when I’m asked to ‘perform’, it takes me a good deal of agonising before I say ‘yes’. Seeing the whites of the audiences’ eyes, looking up at me expectantly, is quite terrifying. And doing it while talking about my breast cancer while everyone’s looking at…my breasts, is super scary. What to wear? What to say? What will I be asked?
There have been a lot of expectant faces watching me talk about trauma over the past few weeks because I’ve been hurtling across the UK going to various literary festivals to talk about ‘Rise’ and answer questions about the book. We’ve had an amazing time so far – from Hay in Herefordshire, to Wigtown in Dumfrieshire, to Ilkley in Yorkshire, to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire – sitting on stages being interviewed in front of hundreds of people, reading a few extracts, laughing and crying with the audience. And then sitting behind a little desk in the bookshop afterwards, signing away and listening to people talk about the challenging events they’re experiencing, or asking me questions about how they can help someone they love who’s going through a difficult time.
It was Cheltenham at the beginning of October – next to Hay, the ‘big daddy’ of the book world – and I was interviewed by Radio 4’s Libby Purves who warmly and calmly guided me through some difficult territory, asking me why I chose to share my story (‘because I learnt so much that I thought would be helpful to others’), what I thought of others in the public eye who do, or don’t, reveal they have cancer (‘it’s so personal, no one can judge what or who is right or wrong’,) and who or what helped me recover (‘friends, laughter, being able to talk and ask for help’).
And then I’m asked to read out a small section of the book. So I chose a bit that describes how people can help you through difficult times, in quite unexpected ways. My friend Dixi and I are meeting three weeks after my double mastectomy. I’ve just had my dressings changed and we’re grabbing a coffee at a local cafe. Here it is, a little snippet from chapter 8 of ‘Rise’.
‘We’re in the Wellcome Trust café on the Euston Road, just next to University College Hospital where the clinicians whipped my breasts off. The café is full of mumbling erudition – lots of clever people sipping kale and ginger juice, wondering whether to buy another book on the brain. Dixi has brought a present in a small, shiny red bag, stuffed with pink tissue. ‘Don’t get this out here,’ she warns, looking around. ‘Wait until you get home.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ I say. ‘I’ve had a crap morning having my miserable chest manipulated and you’ve bought me a gift. I want to open it now.’
I take out the tissue and, looking quizzically at her, delve inside, taking out two soft, round, pink balls – with very perky nipples. ‘It’s from my nan,’ she says, suppressing a giggle. ‘She’s knitted you some new breasts.’ We start to howl with laughter as I hold the ridiculous woollen boobs, one in each hand, up to my chest, catching the eye of a café dweller, who’s clearly wondering whether two middle-aged ladies-who-lunch have become hysterical on early white wine.’
I still have those breasts – in fact, I now have two pairs, in different colours, and her nan is knitting me a third (‘I thought stripy, what say you?’). The kids call them ‘cupcakes’ – terrified that their friends might see them, stuffing them into drawers or kicking them under the bed. The reason I use them is that it shows what a difference small kindnesses can make, what a difference friends and laughter make, how sometimes you’ve got to step outside of your own condition and see the absurdity in it, even when you feel at your lowest, perhaps especially so. And it’s about reaching for those ‘outstretched hands’, trusting the people who are there to help, in their very different ways. Letting go, reaching up, rising.
It’s tough to do, no doubt about that, because you have to, like all trauma, live with uncertainty. In my case, the cancer might come back, I’m going in for my three month check today and I’m always nervous of what the oncologist will say, but if he says it has, I think I’ve equipped myself with the tools to deal with it in a way that will be less emotionally damaging than before. It’s that psychological first-aid kit I keep banging on about. Or maybe you can think of it like this. When I was having my dressings changed once, the doctor talked about dealing with cancer like this: ‘Imagine that you’re crossing a snowy field. There are potholes and snow-drifts and you keep stumbling and falling over. Sitting down you think you’ll never stand again. Your boots leak and you can’t see the other side. But you do stand, unsteadily at first and when you get to the other side, you look round and you have taken the path. Your path.’ Well, I thought that was lovely – but then I thought, if I’m lacing up my boots for some hard yards, then at least I should know what to put in my back-pack. What are the tools and tips to get you across safely? Where are the outstretched hands you can grasp to pull you up? What sustenance can I put in the backpack? That’s what ‘Rise’ is.
The audience – you – are always lovely. Laughing in all the right places, especially at the woollen breasts, crying in other bits, sharing their own stories and all-in-all, this has taught me a lot. About the belief in myself and belief in the basic human goodness of others. No-one minds your vulnerabilities, in fact, showing you have frailties and fears might make others feel easier about sharing their own feelings.
I thought, during Cancer Awareness Month, we can reach out with our out-stretched hands, to others who need help or support. It may be a text – another friend used to send me messages saying ‘just thinking about you, no need to respond’, which was invaluable, just knowing she was there. Or it might be a phone-call, a shoulder to cry on. Or a gift, that makes you howl with laughter and makes you feel very grateful you’re still alive.
Cancer Awareness Month is a worldwide, annual campaign that runs in October. I know it’s the end of breast cancer awareness month, but I thought, we can keep our small kindnesses going and reach out with our out-stretched hands to others who need help or support. For more information see MacMillan.org.uk and BreastCancerCare.org.uk.