Monday, 23 November 2015


I switched on my mobile at around 9 am and found a voicemail from my GP. ‘Please come and see me, I’ve made an appointment for you at 11.30 today.’ I gulped and put the phone down. This could not be good news. T drove me into Belfast and we sat in the waiting room. It was full of parents and babies.

The GP handed me the results of the CT scan and talked me through the report, at one point drawing a diagram on the page to illustrate the medical terms. The scan confirmed the lump in the right side of my abdomen. It was two inches in diameter, the size of a satsuma. I now needed a biopsy to test whether the lump was cancerous.

I walked out of his office, scan report in hand, and we went down the stairs to the street. T held my hand tightly. I had to concentrate hard on walking, my legs seemed very far away. We sat in a coffee shop and tried to absorb the news. She peered at my GP’s childlike drawing, strangely incongruous with the weight of the words on the page.

I began to recall my younger brother, who had died of cancer five and a half years ago. His tumour had been misdiagnosed and before it was treated had already spread. He lasted about nine months.

‘We’re in this together’ said T. I nodded and stretched out my hand across the table to her. We clasped. Our time of waiting had become harder.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015


I had a routine ultrasound scan on my abdomen three weeks ago. The two radiologists spent a long time investigating my right side, moving the sensor over the area again and again, asking me to breathe in and hold my breath. I wasn’t expecting such a going over. At the end, one told me that they had found an abnormality below my right kidney.

What sort of abnormality, I said?

A lump, he said.

I gasped.

He smiled nervously. We’re sending you for a full CT scan.

When, I asked?

With your history, he said, glancing at my notes, I think you’ll be called in pretty soon.

I went home. It was difficult to focus on anything other than my fear. I rang T.

We’ll get through this, she said, whatever it is.

I hope so, I said. I didn’t want to put down the phone. But in the end I had to. I reckoned the CT scan wouldn’t happen for weeks. And I didn’t know how I would get through this day, let alone all the others.

It is four and a half years since my cancer diagnosis. Then I was told that I had a one in three chance of dying within five years. That prognosis hung over me like a very dark cloud for several years. But I’d fought back and had turned the tables. This year I’d been doing so well and feeling fit and healthy again. Now the odds seemed to have turned against me.

I rang my brother. Try not to worry, he said.

Easier said than done, I replied. I’d been doing nothing else all day.

Don't worry, was the advice I was given most often. I became tired of hearing it. It felt depleting and seemed to add to my burdens. I spent a restless night.

In the morning I began to remember how I had found a way to get through the early dark days of cancer treatment. I broke each day down into parts. Then I organised something for each of those parts. I would do something, meet someone, and so on. It could be as simple as going for a walk: sufficient unto the day.

The night is a separate challenge in itself. But if you have filled your day then you will be tired and will sleep a while even if it is interrupted (as it surely will be).

None of this stops you having bleak episodes. They come unbidden. They come whenever they will. They can insert themselves into any moment. They come when something reminds you of the dark past. They come when something triggers a sense of loss of the future. They can always subvert the here and now. You just have to get through and beyond them.

This is a survival strategy. Like Ivan Denisovich, you do your best to get through each part of a day and a night. And then you do it all over again. And again.

In a week or so the appointment letter for the scan came. The date of the appointment was ten days ahead.

I kept on keeping on: living and worrying.

The CT scan has just taken place. And now I am waiting for the results. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Azure Coast

Between St Tropez and San Remo lies a coastline that is warm throughout the winter. It is also blessed with a famous clarity of light that intensifies colour. Over centuries it has attracted a series of visitors: invalids, the aristocracy, painters, writers, starlets and the super rich. T and I joined this odd list last week and found plenty to enjoy and much to bemuse.

We were staying in Cannes and made day trips to Nice, Antibes, Grasse, St Paul de Vence and Monaco. Every day was warm and most days were very sunny with clear azure skies and temperatures up to 25 degrees Celsius. The coast is very attractive, rocky bays girded with pines that back onto steep hills topped by fortified villages that rear up again to snow-capped mountains.

Ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege are commonplace. The Croisette at Cannes has palm trees and sand (both imported) with grand hotels and upmarket fashion shops. The marina has row upon row of large motor yachts, whilst the bay holds those yachts too big to be moored at the quay. These vulgar displays attract an audience of wannabees, imitators and hangers on with an associated bling industry that supplies their needs.

Yet there is also much that is genuine in the town. A large market filled with a cornucopia of fresh local produce: fish, meat, vegetables, herbs, cheese, fruit, spices, bread and conserves. Everything seems to grow well in this climate, including bananas. The narrow streets that surround the market are filled with small cafes, bars and restaurants. These are predominantly places for locals. We frequented Aux Bons Enfants, a great little restaurant with a fixed price menu that offered new dishes every day, depending on what they had bought that morning from the market – fantastic food at a very reasonable price. They had a small picture on the wall of Nicholas Sarkosy and Carla Bruni, who had once eaten there.

Most of the places we visited seemed to have this character: an ostentatious front that was focused on exclusivity and charging the highest prices, and a more genuine background, which you had to dig for, that was more local and traditional. In Antibes, the old walled town and its market was alongside the largest marina with the most expensive motor yachts on the Riviera. In Nice, the narrow streets of the old town with their captivating little church squares were below the grand hotels that were built on hillsides for the European aristocracy who, during the nineteenth century, set up court there for six months of the year. The exception of course was Monaco, a very exclusive tax-haven with a famous casino (the top floor of a beautiful opera house) whose raison d’ĂȘtre is wealth and privilege.

We enjoyed St Paul de Vence, a medieval walled town built on the crown of a hill, now filled with art and trinket shops and adorned with sculptures. Grasse, another hill town, was the traditional home of the French perfume industry and has a most interesting perfume museum. Our favourite place was the island of St Honorat, just 30 minutes by boat from Cannes but also a world away: we wandered through the pines, picnicked on the battlements of a fortified abbey at the edge of the sea and soaked up the warm sunshine. Soon we would be going home to cold and fog.