I dithered a lot about publishing Rise. At least, dithered about showing you the inner workings of my emotional chaos as I struggled with the impact of breast cancer.
The diaries on which the book is based are so raw, and often I don’t think they show me in the best light. But that’s what it’s like, isn’t it? Sometimes, going through tough times, you’re not your best self. And I realised that’s OK, because we’re not saintly. In fact, most times we’re snappy. Or scared. Or silent.
At my book launch at Daunt Books in London, surrounded by family and friends (and, it transpired, the occasional newspaper diarist who snuck in – The Evening Standard included a short write-up about the event in its diary), when I was asked to read out a bit of Rise, I was horror-struck. I hadn’t expected that. Indeed – I hadn’t even brought my glasses. What to say? I was standing next to my publisher, Alan Sampson, who said some wonderful words about how proud he was of the book and then he looked at me and said: “And Sian is going to read you part of it.”
We were standing on a balcony overlooking about a hundred expectant faces. I delayed a bit, telling them about how we’d seen Rise in WH Smiths in Oxford and it was at Number 2 in the New Bestsellers list and I was so thrilled, I got my husband Paul to take a picture of it. Tacky, I know. And the staff were looking at us strangely, so I just gabbled at them, “It’s my book! This one! Between Karl Pilkington and the Russian war! That’s my book!”
Then I had to read it, so I chose a bit about unanswered questions and ended on a story about the strangest gift I was given through all this. Just to explain. I don’t like questions left unanswered. I like to have clarity and certainty. Sadly, cancer doesn’t offer any of those. So you have to, like all trauma, live with uncertainty. It might come back, I may stumble again but if it does, I think I’ve equipped myself with the kit to deal with it in a way that will be less emotionally damaging. 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, and the doctor asked me if I was OK. I said, “No – can you get me a route map out of here please?” “Imagine,” he replied, “that you’re crossing a snowy field…” (hurry up, I thought, I’m collecting the kids soon) “And you can’t see the path to the other side. There are potholes and snowdrifts 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 backpack.
What are the tools and tips to get you across safely? Where are the outstretched hands you can grasp to pull you up? That’s what the book is.
I ended by telling the crowd in Daunt Books about one of those outstretched hands – a friend of mine called Dixi. She gave me a tool: the ability to laugh at the absurdity of my condition. I’d seen her after I’d just had my miserable chest manipulated in hospital and she’d given me a gift. In the middle of a very busy coffee shop, I opened it. Two pink, woollen bosoms with very perky nipples, knitted by her nan because I’ve lost mine. We howled with laughter. I’ve got two pairs now. Different sizes. And she’s knitting me some stripy ones, goodness knows why… but the kindness of strangers, huh? Small acts of goodness, sometimes from people who don’t even know you – I’ve noticed that a lot recently.
The launch went well by the way and everyone was kind. Just as you have been, lovely reader.
I’ve been overwhelmed by your messages of love and hope. Thank you for sharing your own stories and experiences, however varied, however personal, with candour and compassion.
Please keep talking to me. Please keep telling me what tools and tips you have to keep you going. What’s in your backpack? Tell me in a comment below.
And please keep rising. Remember – we are all doing it together.
Pictures: Stevie Finegan