by Lori Ness aka Christine Arness
I sold my first book the same week I found out I had terminal cancer, which brings a whole new meaning to “publish or perish”, a phrase most academic folks live or die by. When my editor from Harper called three weeks after I submitted my women’s suspense manuscript for Rosemary for Remembrance, I was thrilled to learn I was going to be published within a few months as one of the lead titles in a new line.
Two days later, I awoke from surgery to remove an infected cyst in my neck, only to learn it was a metastasized tumor and I had Stage 4 cancer. In my happy state of ignorance, I informed my sister, “It’s not so bad—it could have been Stage 8, 9 or even 10!” and she, a nurse, informed me through tears that the cancer stage elevator only goes to the 4th floor. There ain’t no more.
Due to perhaps an irrational fear Harper might not publish my manuscript if they learned I had terminal cancer, I supplied my mother’s phone number instead of my own. Whenever my editor called, Mom told her I would get back to her. She then called me and I called the editor—which explains why my hospital phone bill was larger than the one for radiation treatments. Carolyn didn’t find out about my ruse until we met at a writers’ conference two years later and I confessed. She laughed and said, “I wondered why I was never able to reach you when I called!”
I learned my cancer (sounds almost like a pet, doesn’t it!) was rare for a woman under thirty as the typical patient profiled was male, a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker. Strike 3! My doctors didn’t give me much hope but they did make me famous in local medical circles as the subject of Grand Rounds. This is a teaching experience where specialists met in the hospital auditorium to view giant screen photos of a ninety pound weakling with tufts of hair sprinkled on her head, giving the impression that she suffered mostly from the mange. I also sported severe burns on my face and neck, along with radiation demarcation lines in vivid green and purple that made me look like I’d fallen asleep and a child had used my skin as a coloring book.
I enjoyed (and I use that term loosely, believe me) seven weeks of oral radiation followed by a week of electron radiation used as an experimental treatment. Out of that experience came my first published effort, “Trusting”, an account of meeting a boy whose faith in his father gave him peace and even joy prior to going in for another treatment session. I realized while watching this child that I could only find such peace by letting go of my fears and trusting in my heavenly Father. Without my knowledge, my aunt submitted “Trusting” to a magazine and she surprised me with the news it would be published.
Another short piece called “Candled” described the feelings evoked by having head and neck radiation, comparing the experience of MRIs to an egg being candled with an eye to being discarded for impurities. Both “Trusting” and “Candled” ended up in packets for new cancer patients at local hospitals and hospices, with God turning my scribbled fears into something that might help others.
Rosemary for Remembrance was published several months after my final treatment and the village where I lived threw me a book party. I don’t recognize the skeletal gal in the photos from that event, with a cap of very short hair and hectic radiation burns on her cheeks making her look as if she’d escaped from clown college. But I had a huge smile!
I gained some weight, grew some more hair and thanked God daily I was still alive. However, four years after my first rodeo, the primary cancer site surfaced and I learned it wasn’t just my sense of humor that was terminal. So I got the bonus round—five weeks of hospitalization for chemo and twice daily radiation sessions and then thirty-four hours of radium implants, which left me with permanent facial nerve pain.
But cancer actually can be a wondrous blessing in a very ugly disguise. I learned more people cared about me than I realized. For example, the hospital required that I pay for the privilege of a television. Three women in my hometown paid the bill for the entire five weeks. When I got home, a friend drove out each week with high protein and high calorie meals. One of my doctors forgave thousands of dollars not covered by insurance. I received stacks of “get well” and “thinking of you” cards. The gifts of people’s time, love and ingenuity went on and on.
But the most important blessing having cancer gave me was the gift of every day. The experience reminded me that, pun intended, there’s no time like the present. Each morning when I wake up, I acknowledge with gratitude that God has allowed me to live another day. I also ask, how am I going to use such a gift? I used to fret about my future, but being a member of the Big C Club gave me a deeper empathy for others, both as a person and as a writer, a connection I never could have gained otherwise. I do my best, with God’s help, to be sensitive to the needs of those around me.
Take a moment from your writing journey each day to lift your eyes from your computer screen or your legal pad and, especially, from yourself. Remember others walk beside you and, wherever possible, reach out to help lift their burden, even if just for a moment.
Ask God for ways you can bring His joy, love and caring to someone else. Blessings and Happy Writing!
Lori's latest book, just released, is Love Has the Best Intentions. Get it in paperback or Kindle.