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Reading – consolation for my cancer. By Claire Gilbert

Blog | By Claire Gilbert | Mar 25, 2021

By Abhi Sharma

Cancer consolations: why reading The Oldie is essential rehab for chemotherapy. By Claire Gilbert

In March 2019 I was diagnosed with Myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow. I have been in treatment ever since, in an attempt to send the cancer into deep remission.

You have to submit to the treatment. Thank heavens I am, at Guy’s Hospital, among world class haematologists and oncologists and clinical nurse specialists who are easy to trust. That helps. But I don’t really understand the science and it is utterly counter intuitive to allow a substance to be infused into your body that makes you feel dreadful when you had felt - because the cancer was found early - perfectly well.

How would I cope?

I asked a group of friends and family if they would be my Dear Readers and I write to them: their gift to me is simply to read, they don’t have to respond, though lots of them do. I write unexpurgated, raw words from my most vulnerable self: the Dear Readers are spared none of my pain, and none of the fierce joy that I have discovered in the midst of the pain. And they have learnt what brings comfort to a tormented body: nature, music, Julian of Norwich... and The Oldie.

Michael McCarthy has reminded us of the therapeutic value of nature. In his 2015 book The Moth Snowstorm, and again in his co-authored 2020 book The Consolation of Nature, he cites the gently groundbreaking study by Roger Ulrich in 1982, which demonstrated that patients who wake up after surgery to a view of greenery outside their window recover significantly faster than those who wake up to a vision of a brick wall. More recent research commissioned by Natural England in 2016 showed significant benefits of nature-based interventions for mental health care. In her 2016 book The Fight for Beauty, former Director-General of the National Trust Fiona Reynolds argues for the fundamental need humans have for natural beauty: it is not a luxury. And heavens has it helped me:

Tuesday 21st May 2019

Today I wake to a brave new world, my bursting appreciation matching the depth of my earlier despairing nausea and fever (does one have to have the ghastliness before one can have the joy?). The lowering skies have lifted, the sun shines on a glittering sea, the smell of summer is everywhere. Today I ride and I don’t think I have the words to express how joyful that feels... I ride big, strong Denby, sturdy as a mountain, and drink in all of nature, rolling hills, abundant oaks, ancient beech, a buzzard hovering, wending our way through overgrown paths and cantering along the trampoline field and the uppey-downy field, birdsong, the smells richer than I have ever known them.

Music has fed my soul and healed my quaking psyche. When I had to go to hospital for a stem cell transplant, I asked each of the Dear Readers to name a piece of music which they loved. I created a playlist of the sound of my friends’ souls which brought solace to my soul as I lay supine and helpless and sick to death.

Friday 8th November 2019

The cruelty of Melphalan, destroying my alimentary canal when I need it so badly to get well again. Nausea and diarrhoea; nausea and diarrhoea. I cannot clean my teeth. I sweat...

I listen to my Dear Reader playlist. It is on shuffle as I am absolutely incapable of making choices. But the right music plays: Finzi’s ‘Life is a flower in springtime’; Mozart’s requiem with his commanding ‘light perpetual shine on you’; Leonard Cohen’s ‘You want it darker (I’m ready, Lord)’. The music sings in my soul, rallying my spirit, accompanying and articulating my pain and confusion and utter vulnerability when I have no resources of my own, nothing.

Julian of Norwich is my constant companion. She had a series of revelations when she was very close to death in 1373 and wrote about them in the decades that followed, almost certainly from the isolation of an anchorhold abutting the Church of St Julian in Norwich. Her writing is exquisite:

Sunday, 17th November 2019

From the depths of my heart, thank you, I [a Dear Reader], for this quotation from Julian that landed in my inbox at exactly the right moment:

He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome’.’

And The Oldie has kept me sane from the start:

Sunday 12th May 2019 Saturday. Was. S***.

I wasn’t actually sick (burp not retch, thank God) but I was in that awful no-mans- land of not knowing if I was nauseous or hungry... I could only lie on the sofa and gently moan, dutifully swallowing my drugs and my water... I read the gently humorous and utterly comforting Oldie from cover to cover.

Claire Gilbert’s Miles to Go before I Sleep: letters on hope, death and learning to live is published on 18th March.