The question of the day is this -- why write cancer fiction?
The answer is simple. Raise your hand if you don't no anyone who has cancer, has survived cancer, or has died from cancer. Oops. I'm not seeing very many hands out there.
These days, cancer is far more survivable than it once was. Everywhere you go, you are rubbing elbows with people who have experienced the disease in some way, whether as patient, relative, friend, neighbor, or just a bystander who saw the devastation.
And yet, rarely do we see fictional characters with cancer, unless they're tragically sprawled on their death beds. The truth is people are thriving more than they are dying with the disease, so why doesn't our fiction reflect this fact?
Before you authors go off and start writing your newest novel featuring the brave heroine who battles the disease or the knight in shining armor who conquers the Mighty C, stop. You should never write about how a disease affects a person until you have the facts and the insight. Otherwise, C-faring folks are going to think you're exploiting them, and rightly so.
I say that as someone who got trounced for "Murder at the Mountain Vale Inn", a short little tale I wrote. It was, in fact, my first ebook. It wasn't cancer patients who didn't get it. It was the general public. Did I write too-specific a cancer story? Perhaps. Or perhaps the readers didn't appreciate the ironic twist at the climax. Me, personally? I thought it was a hoot, but then I know cancer survivors and getting back to normal life is a big part of the healing process. It's all about empowerment after devastating loss.
Mary, one of the main characters in that story, was an actor who got breast cancer. Her struggle during treatment was brutal, and her best friend was there throughout. Both women are married to very supportive men, which helps, but sometimes it takes a woman to understand what another woman goes through. When she's finally back on her feet, Mary decides it's time to give back to her dedicated caregiver. What better way to repay all that kindness than to take a weekend trip to a luxurious inn? This lovely splurge turns into a nightmare when they intercept a plot to murder the unsuspecting spouse of a philandering guest and accomplice.
What most people missed about the story was that cancer patients often are frustrated by the damage the disease brings into their lives. It's not just the physical trauma -- few cancers are as devastating as breast cancer. It's about what it does to your spirit, your self-image, your trust in life and love. Consider the divorce rate for breast cancer patients. Think all marriages and relationships can handle any storm? Not so much. If you're single, is your boyfriend going to stick around? It's a rare bird that won't fly off in the face of such a diagnosis. Talk about a low blow to your self-esteem! All the more reason to tell a tale about some of the confusion and sorrow of surviving cancer, setting it inside a mystery.
Without spoiling the surprise ending, I'll tell you that I tried to respect Mary's experience with the disease and how it turned her life upside down. I also tried to be true to her desire to regain control over her own life and to depict how she did it through her stagecraft. Actors are a funny bunch of folks and once you're bitten by the bug and you go professional, it's really hard to let that go. Mary understood some of what her best friend went through to help her through treatment and she felt guilty for the sacrifices made. If you take away a cancer patient's need to balance out a relationship that goes from equal to skewed, you're really doing damage to the whole person. No one enjoys being dependent -- remember that and empower cancer patients. You may have to be the wind beneath their wings, but make sure you help them to fly. And if a cancer patient wants to do something nice for you in return, let him or her. You're recognizing the human need to feel like an equal. Cancer patients too often get that "poor thing" end of a very short stick. Sometimes giving a cancer patient the chance to be just like anyone else is very powerful medicine.
I was more successful with another tale, "Charleston with a Clever Cougar", and I think part of the reason was that I didn't make Carole's cancer the main focus of the plot line. Cancer seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable, so characters often are too quickly cured or they die off. In real life, a lot of folks live with the disease according to the type of cancer, the type of treatment, and the many factors that affect prognosis. In other words, writing a novel about a character with cancer should reflect that reality.
In Carole's case, she's managed to get through her treatment, but that bastard of a husband hooked up with someone else while she was struggling. Cady, a childless, single businesswoman who owns a bakery, takes Carole's teenage daughter, Daisy, under her wing. Enter Doc, an experienced medic back from yet another tour of combat duty. Now you have three people with a first-hand look at PTSD.
Did I forget to mention this is a story of survivors? Sure, Carole made it through her cancer, and Doc made it back from the war, but Cady has her own hidden demons and devils. All that chaos triggers the return of some very ugly nightmares, and Doc's there to see her through it. When a couple of thugs go after Carole's daughter, Cady has to put her own fears aside and focus. Why would anyone want to hurt a good kid like Daisy? The answer is ugly. Political intrigue, ambition, greed -- it's all there.
Maybe that's why this particular story had better reviews from the moment it was published. There's a lot to like about Doc, the gruff medic, who knows all too well that dealing with PTSD is important. Even as he's fighting his way back into life without war, he can recognize the symptoms in Carole and Cady. These two women don't realize it, but they're a part of Doc's plan to reintegrate into American society. He needs them every bit as much as they need him.
But for Cady, who so carefully provided care to her friend, the realization that her whole life has been affected by a single moment in time, comes as a shock. Never married, never having children -- she thought those were conscious decisions she made because she was an independent woman. Imagine her dismay when she realizes just how damaged she was by what happened to her. Sometimes we bury the wounds deep and think we've forgotten them. And sometimes we assume that men and women back from the war are the only ones who have PTSD.
(To read this story for free, use coupon code ZQ55W and download it in your digital format at Smashwords: Charleston with a Clever Cougar )
My goal in writing the novella was first and foremost to tell a good tale. I like adventure. I like complications that force people out of their everyday, all-too-complacent lives and into making life-changing decisions. I certainly managed to do that with "Charleston with a Clever Cougar". Cancer wasn't the real issue in the 99-cent ebook, any more than Doc's war experiences were the heart of the tale. This was about three adults and a teenager trying to understand a murderous plot. Why did someone want Daisy dead? Even as readers navigate the story, they come to see that Daisy is just a normal teenager who is scared out of her mind about her mother's future, what will happen to her little brother, and how she will maintain her relationship with the father who abandoned them for another woman.
In some ways, even though cancer was a huge part of the story and Carole is a very sympathetic and likable character, she's more than just a survivor of the disease. She's dealt with the fact that when the chips were down, Doug deserted her and the kids. It could have been any other calamity that forced him to flee, but in this case, it's cancer.
Facing up to the fact that the man you love is weak-willed and shallow is never easy for any woman. For a survivor like Carole, it comes as an eye-opener. Sometimes we take on too much responsibility for what happens to our relationships and we fail to see that not all men and women are created equally. Life is a constant learning curve, and how we adapt to our circumstances is all about how we build our own character in real life. I crafting these fictional people, I strove to make them as real as I could, and in doing so, I wanted cancer to not have the upper hand.
Will Carole survive the disease? Just as in real life, the author in me can't look into the crystal ball and tell you that. Readers can assume that Cady and Doc will be there for her, come what may, because the bond was forged when that evil, despicable decision was made to try to kill poor Daisy. In real life, there are always plots and perils. What matters is creating characters that readers can relate to and appreciate, even as they take that wild, unexpected ride.
So, my advice to anyone writing a novel is to never shy away from the reality of how cancer affects characters. Be honest. Be blunt. Be real. But don't make the story about how cancer took over life -- don't let cancer be in charge of the plot. Put cancer in its place. It happened and the characters are dealing with it. Let characters thrive and survive, even if they have to struggle with side effects like physical scars, "chemo brain", fatigue, or any of the other collateral damage that comes along for the ride. Tell a good tale and entertain readers without the pity party. Cancer survivors deserve to be recognized, not as brave sufferers who carry on with their heads held high and a stiff upper lip, not as perfect martyrs who utter trite things like "Gosh darn it anyway!" when things go south, but as human beings, doing the best they can with the crappy hand they were dealt in the card game we call life.
Sara Barton, AKA the Practical Caregiver, has a cancer caregiver blog to help families cope with a loved one's cancer: The Practical Caregiver -- Cancer
She also provides educational resources for family caregivers through The Practial Caregiver Guides.
Her downloadable ebook guides on family care are available through Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Diesel, Kobo Books, Smashwords, and Sony.