People Power

I can’t begin to describe how much support I’ve had over the past eight months or so.  Writing a blog about the ways in which people have been there seems a little daunting and pretty risky in case I miss someone out.  In fact, it is certain that I’ll miss a load of people out because there have been so many visits, meetings, encounters, outings, holidays – everything.  They say you know who your friends are when the worst happens.  Well it appears I have some really good friends who I didn’t previously know were such good friends.  I’m so lucky.  But as this paragraph seems to be turning into some kind of Oscar acceptance speech, I’d better zero in on the past couple of weeks for a few examples.

In between Snowdonia and the Festival hall,  Jon drove me down to the Western side of the Solent to visit an accumulation of family members and spend a little time in relaxed company and doing a bit of strolling with Jess in a beautifully kept area of public garden with its own steam train.  Immediately following a very steep mountain race, walking was tricky but I just about made it round the shady shrubberies and pristine flowerbeds at a gentle hobble.  Then Jude informed me that we’d arranged to meet a couple days later and we spent a while mooching around the Stratford area, before I went off to see that bit of Mahler.

A couple of nice gigs the following weekend reunited me with a few more old friends – the music community has really come together in all sorts of ways, including still offering me gigs like nothing’s wrong with me!  It’s a lovely break from all the rubbish to just feel like a musician and do that just like anyone else.  Everyone seems surprised that I ‘look so well’ at the moment and, honestly, so am I.  But with that, I’m also capable and not particularly fragile, so at least for a bit can be treated like a normal person.  I’m grateful when people do this and resist piling on the sympathy.  I imagine everyone will need plenty of this further down the line, so may as well save it for now.

Amongst those who’ve been in contact recently have been some who I haven’t seen in decades.  Take Esther, who I used to live with way back in uni days.  Someone asked if I was ok with people coming out of the woodwork like this as ‘where were they before?’ Well – it could also be asked where I was, so it goes both ways and in most cases, it’s as if the time hasn’t passed and I’m grateful for the reconnection. Not everyone has been brave enough to say hello again.  After all, it’s really hard knowing someone in my position and working out what to say or how to be.  There’s an undercurrent of forlorn helplessness in every conversation I have these days because, ultimately, there’s not a lot anyone can do to help me and everyone wishes they could.  I presume any enemies have stayed diplomatically silent, so I suppose I haven’t been exposed to anything but kindness and, at worst, the pitying look people can’t hide from their eyes.  After all, we all know what’s coming and approximately how soon.

But nonetheless, offers of help mean a lot and, a few months ago, I was told I’d be welcome not just to come and stay, but make use of Esther and Paul’s self contained holiday annex.  When a few days looked clear for me and I was assured no one had booked, I went for this and ended up with four beautifully sunny days by the Suffolk coast surrounded by greenery and quiet country lanes that led to the sea.  The change of scenery did me some good and I cleared my mind to get a bit of writing done.  I doubt other guests are invited for dinner or to attend brass band rehearsals, but I really enjoyed both.  It felt like a big step for me to take an offer like this at face value.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that a fair few people are genuinely happy to be able to do something and that such offers are genuine and not made out of pity or just to appear to be nice.  People really mean well and that doesn’t necessarily mean dropping everything to visit my bedside, though that’s been a given for my closest friends and family.  I’m effectively living under a death sentence.  So the offer of physical or mental respite from that inevitability, however small, is so valuable in its own way.

Over the course of the next week or so, more respite came from a mix of old, dear friends and complete strangers.  Upon my return home, I met Nick from Macmillan (the cancer charity, not the publisher – all quiet on the authorial front).  He patiently listened to my story and topped me up with coffee as he told me about an upcoming ‘men and cancer’ campaign and I reeled off a few (probably unrealistic) ideas that might fit with it.  We’ll see if any work, but it seems I might be of use to them as not so many men choose to be quite so open about what’s going on.  Let’s see.  In any case, Macmillan is definitely a good cause to try and help in any way I can.  There are myriad charities that focus on research and funding for clinical trials etc. But Macmillan are there for people in my position, who are trying to work out how to live with a cancer diagnosis.  From accessible information on just about everything to free counselling to will writing, I’ve already made use of their services and there are plenty more.

And as I was in London anyway, I went across to Maggie’s in Bart’s Hospital, which is another example of a charity that helps people living with cancer.  It’s not like this place can give me the kind of solace you get by going in between appointments if it’s at your hospital but I really wish it were in mine as I enjoyed dropping in.  The building itself is designed to be relaxing with a wafting acoustic where distant conversations fade into a gently resonant background breath and peace resounds.  So much so that my idea of setting up therapeutic music sessions there was rendered irrelevant upon entering the building and taking in the space.  They plied me with more coffee and easy conversation, then I reclined with a book from the substantial library of cancer related literature and felt strangely at peace.  If I ever become the kind of writer who frequents cafes, this one will certainly be in my rotation.

From there and in more glorious sunshine, I juxtaposed the first meetings with saying hello to Ollie, Becky and baby Rosa a short walk away at the Tate Modern.  One of my oldest kindred spirits, Ollie has been present and available in recent months as ever.  Likewise with Maud, who I met the next evening in a hastily arranged pub trip to provide some emotional support for a mutual friend. Maud isn’t such an old friend – but as an ultra running musician who likes cricket, there’s plenty for us to talk about.  One of those people who’s infuriatingly good at everything she puts her hand to (including the seemingly effortless achievement of most of my previously held life goals) that annoyance dissipates when you spend a while in Maud’s presence as she’s also very nice. For example, I was graced with not one, but two hospital visits over my most recent residency.

As the bank holiday weekend turned to half term, there were more opportunities to catch up with people, many of whom are making their second or third effort to see me post-diagnosis, like my oldest friend Madelyn, and a large group of work friends.  On Friday, I met up with what’s probably been my most consistent friendship group, but I had to get through an oncology appointment first.  I was hopeful that the test results wouldn’t be too worrying – after all, I’ve been feeling pretty good recently.  The doctor agreed that whilst I appear so well, we don’t need to rush back to chemo and there’s a chance I’ll be able to enjoy much of the summer and perhaps beyond that without debilitating treatment.  But the tests showed a doubling of the CEA cancer marker and likely doubling in the size of my tumours – another scan has been ordered to see if there’s been any further spread.  This simple fact messed with my head a bit and, on the way home, I discovered that it’s possible to simultaneously run and weep.  So it was just as well that, later that evening, we hit golf balls into the night sky and talked about anything but cancer.

Although not at all taken for granted, it’s probably not surprising that old friends have recently rallied round.  Anyone would – I hope I would.  But as with Esther’s offer of accommodation, the meaning of some unexpected gestures is staggering.  On April 1st, as I settled in to enjoy that weekend in Eastbourne with some very good friends as I began to shrug off the lingering effects of chemo and surgery, I received a message from Mike.  We’d only met once and at that for about 3-4 hours.  But those hours were in the middle of the Beacons Way 100 miler and we were navigating our way through a head high forest of bracken.  We eventually found the path and got each other out, then ran until about dusk, when Mike found a second wind and literally ran away with it.  

April 1st was significant not because it’s a great morning to read the papers, but because it was the first day of the coast to coast race I’d entered but had to pull out of.  I think I was just about capable of 3k by this point, but not the 300k this race covered.  But Mike was on the start line at St Bees Head in Cumbria, with a pebble from the beach.  When he promised me he’d dip it in the sea in Robin Hood’s bay (yes – 190 miles away by foot) and deliver it to me, I shed a tear.  When he finished, by way of congratulation, I promised to put it back at St Bees via another dip in that North Yorkshire beach.  It’s not yet clear if there’s a chance this will actually happen, but I’ll certainly give it a go if I can.

Well, we needed to arrange a time to pick up that pebble and the past weekend was perfect.  Mike is still recovering from that ultra ordeal but after kind of pebble handover ceremony at a beach just south of Havant on the South Coast, we had a pleasant run/hike over Mike’s 12 mile hill special whilst catching up.  The next day, we proceeded similarly along the Hanger’s way, which gave us a beautiful 21 mile out and back that skirted the South Downs and took in a load of England’s green and pleasant land.  Mike becomes super observant whilst running and the easy pace (we took all of 7 hours) gave us pause to look at all manner of flora and fauna.  As I tend to switch my brain off and just run through nature, this was a bit of a change for me, but a welcome one.  In the heat of the day, muscles worked but lungs weren’t gasping and it made for such an enjoyable experience.  Even when attempting this kind of all day adventure previously, I’ve never afforded myself the luxury of a cafe stop as we did.  I could get used to this most relaxed way of covering long distances!  Maybe I needed this change of pace – it’s about what I’d be reduced to on a 100 miler after all and I’ve declared that I want to stage that kind of ultra comeback.

So whenever it feels like I’m going through all this alone, I’m going to have to remember the past few weeks.  Because here is definite proof that, whatever’s coming, there are all sorts of people rooting for me.  It’s a tragic inevitability that I’ll eventually disappoint some and leave those closest to me distraught.  But I owe it to every single person who’s insisted on being a part of this journey to delay that moment as long as possible and pay back at least some of what’s been unconditionally given to me.  Maybe at some point, I’ll even decide I deserve it.


  1. What a great writing and how wonderful to meet up with old and new friends! May you have a great summer and we are looking forward to being with you later this month.

    • Great!
      Looking forward to seeing you both!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thanks for submitting your comment!