Just over a year ago Sophie Sabbage was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was a 48-years-old experienced personal development trainer, married with a young daughter. Her doctors agreed she didn’t have long to live but this week the book she only began writing just over a month ago, is being published.
Obviously she is beating the odds – and having been diagnosed with lung cancer that had already spread to her bones and brain, they were very, very long – but that’s not why we are publishing an extract.
It’s because ‘The Cancer Whisperer’ (Difference Press) is a remarkable book. HealthInsightUK has been a fan of Sophie’s writing ever since she did a blog for us that was both moving and closely argued explaining why dismissing CAM treatments for cancer as offering “false hope” was simultaneously insulting and logically incoherent.
It received such a favourable response that we ran a second that was a plea for an end to the long running battle between CAM and conventional medicine over the bodies of cancer patients.
Beautifully written, her book combines campaigning themes such as these with a novelist’s eye for unflinchingly inspecting her vulnerabilities. Her honesty gave rise to a determination to preserve her essence, whatever the outcome of the disease.
To do this she had to abandon the familiar military metaphors about ‘beating cancer’. Hence the title: The Cancer Whisperer. ‘If cancer is our enemy,’ she writes ‘we are either its victims or its attackers. There is wall between us but no door. No listening to what cancer has to teach us. No chance of reconciliation or peace.’
She describes how she has been at war with her body for most of her life, a battle that emerged in eating disorders and self-loathing. Cancer bought an understanding that: ‘I was finally done with doing violence to my body.’
So rather than seeing cancer cells as an invading horde, she found it was more productive to see them as ‘outcasts, deprived of nutrition and support.’ She asks courageously and imaginatively: ‘What if cancer is the body’s last attempt to save its own life? What if its purpose is not to extinguish us but to heal?’
Sophie explores such ideas in clear and gripping prose and astonishingly conveys the excitement that comes from seeing cancer a voyage of discovery. Once she absolutely knew that ‘she wasn’t ready to relinquish her hold on existence, it was as if life itself met my purpose by rolling out the red carpet,’ and help mysteriously emerged from the most unexpected places.
This is how the book begins…
The Cancer Whisperer – How To Let Cancer Heal Your Life
By Sophie Sabbage
I remember sitting in the radiation waiting room at my local hospital six weeks after I had been diagnosed with Stage Four ‘incurable’ metastatic lung cancer. I was about to start radiation on a large tumour on the C3 vertebra in my neck, which was eating through the bone into my spinal column and causing me considerable pain. I had multiple tumours in several sites—lungs, lymph nodes, bones and brain—but this one was selected for special attention because it was endangering my mobility and threatening my ‘quality of life’.
According to my doctors, saving my life was not an option, so preserving its quality was now their primary aim—which pissed me off. They seemed to be consigning to me to my statistical fate without giving me a chance to be one of the few inexplicable ones who beat the odds. They did their best not to use the ‘d’ word or put a date on it, but the subtext was ever present when they spoke to me: Whatever happens, Mrs. Sabbage, don’t get your hopes up, because you are going to die. I hadn’t even started treatment, but the water of possibility was already closing over my head….
…As each scan result came in, my life force faded and thinned like a waning moon. I was coughing blood, becoming breathless after walking upstairs and I was losing so much vision in my left eye I had to stop driving. I was tired and felt cold a lot. Very, very cold. Perhaps it was the doses of radiation from all the scans that sent things spiraling downwards so quickly, but fear and shock are powerful forces that ricochet through the body like bullets…
…I knew I needed to change my mental narrative if I was going to have any shot at seeing my daughter’s fifth birthday or my forty-ninth. I didn’t want to deny what was happening to me, but nor was I willing to comply with the gloomy predictions of my inexorable ending. I felt furious when people started saying their goodbyes to me and I barked at the nurses when they treated me like I was in a hospice for the dying. I wanted to know every detail of my condition and reject everyone else’s interpretation of it. I was willing to hand over the outcome to God, but not to my doctors or to statistics. To whatever extent was possible, I wanted to write my own story and I was damned if I was going to inhabit theirs.
My husband John came to the hospital with me that day I went through the first radiation treatment. While sitting in the waiting room I received a deeply tender text from a friend and I might not have let my tears roll so freely if John hadn’t been sitting beside me. The nurse assigned to my care hurried over to ask if I was OK, but her concern felt suffocating, as if she was trying to stop me rather than support me—as if my tears might harm me in some way or alarm the other patients or, worse, give them permission to cry too. Yet what better time to cry than this? What better time to honour the life that was vanishing in the wake of my diagnosis, to grieve the future that was being wrenched away from me, to wail like a widow for the fading light?…
…I was conscious of the stoic silence that hung like a thick fog over the radiation waiting room. The numbness. The underground river of unanswered questions. The shy terror. The private prayers. The intensity of diverse groups of patients waiting for some part of our bodies to be burnt and some aspect of our mortality to be orphaned.
“Are you OK?” the nurse asked again with more urgency, her anxiety burrowinginto my skin. I touched her hand lightly to comfort her before replying, “I think I might be the only one here who is.”
She stepped back, confounded, unsure what to say or how to help if I couldn’t be talked out of my tears. So she slipped away quietly and kept her distance at my future visits to the hospital. I was an anomaly, an unashamedly vulnerable anomaly in a context through which censored sorrow flowed.
Following that day’s radiation to my neck, another nurse approached me and handed me a piece of paper. “This is the date of your next appointment, Mrs. Sabbage,” she said matter-of-factly, assuming there was nowhere else I needed to be that morning.
I looked at the date, quickly checked my diary and told her I wasn’t free that day. And there it was again: visible alarm on the face of a nurse because I had given the wrong answer.
“But it’s your radiation appointment,” she responded. “I see that, but I’m not available,” I persisted. Maybe I could have rescheduled whatever else I had planned, but something rose up my diseased spine that made me stand firm. I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t going to be told to show up on command without being asked if I was available. Desperately ill as I was, I knew it was vital for me to make my own choices on every step of this journey, to schedule my treatments around my life not my life around my treatments, to be the author and the protagonist of my story…
…This book is for the cancer patient who wants to remain a dignified, empowered human being when your doctors and diagnosis are scaring the shit out of you, you’re so shocked you can hardly put your shoes on in the morning, you’re caught in the cross-fire between orthodox and complementary medicine and the medical system treats you like a disease, not a human being. This is part memoir and part self-help book. I’m writing it to help you author your own story with wisdom, realism, creativity and courage. I want to share with you how I am navigating my own way through shock, terror, grief, other people’s awkwardness in the face of my prognosis and how I’m sustaining an ongoing inquiry into the nature, causes, lessons and gifts of this devastating but illuminating disease.
I am writing this ten months after diagnosis. I still have cancer, but almost all my metastases have gone. I still have a primary tumour in my lung, another small lesion in the same area and the ever-present possibility that my cancer will mutate and march like an army through my body again. My cancer is systemic and ‘incurable’, but I am living with it. No, I’m thriving with it. I listen to my doctors, for whom I am grateful beyond measure, and I attend all my appointments. But now I receive phone calls to ask me when I’m available and my doctors suggest rather than tell me what to do. We have become collaborative partners on my journey instead of staying caught in the top-down doctor-patient dynamic that still prevails in so much of our medical culture….
…But the biggest win is not surviving cancer, epic as that would be and huge as my purpose is to do so. The bigger win is preserving my personhood, whatever the outcome—that hard-won ‘I’ that neither belongs to my body nor will disintegrate with my body—and knowing that I let it blossom in the face of cancer, even if my flesh withers. The only way I know how to do that is to notice the eagle across the water and the field of possibility on the windblown shore of another country as I steer my ship through this experience, making one brave, faithful and dignified choice at a time.
At the start of this journey, my diagnostician, the doctor who reviewed my first CT scan and conducted my bronchoscopy (not for the faint of heart), said an extraordinary thing to me before passing me on to the oncologist: “Don’t become a patient, Mrs Sabbage. Live your life.”
I took what he said deeply to heart. It empowered me to reach for more than outrunning my prognosis or dying bravely, because I believed it. When I was in deep, fresh, hot-off-the-press shock, about to disappear into that starless night where you cannot see or hear or speak for wishing something different, that doctor awakened the best part of me—the part that knows the future is never written, that everything happens for a purpose greater than what I can see, and that when the shit hits the fan I can either fall to my fate or rise to my destiny. I think I have been rising ever since…
…I have embarked on a great expedition, a road less travelled and an unexpected pilgrimage into the untamed wonder of pure uncertainty, of truly, deeply not knowing what tomorrow brings. My cancer diagnosis was a beginning, not an end, the start of a quest into who I am and what I’m really made of, a living of every moment now.
The Cancer Whisperer is available in ebook form at :
Copies are free to download until the weekend.