A few years ago, Jo discovered she had breast cancer and was a carrier of an altered BRCA2 gene. She had always enjoyed writing, but it was when she turned to it as an outlet after diagnosis that it became a much bigger focus in her life.
I didn’t take in the news at first
My family has a history of breast cancer, but nearly everyone had been over 60 when they were diagnosed. When I started to get a nagging pain in my breast one day and found a small lump, I didn’t think it would be anything to worry about. I was only 37.
I got it checked out and was stunned when I was told it was hormone receptor positive breast cancer.
As soon as the consultant said the word ‘cancer’, I didn’t hear anything else. It felt like a cloud of darkness swept in. My mum was with me so she was able to listen to everything and relay it to me later, but it still took a couple of weeks for it to hit me.
I am still dealing with side effects several years later
I had surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment and, in the middle of all that, I asked to have genetic testing. At the time it was normal practice not to look at genetics until after treatment had ended, as it can be too much to take on board.
I knew that my options for preventative surgery would be more limited if I left it until after treatment though, so I insisted. I found out I have the altered BRCA2 gene, so I had more surgery before radiotherapy began.
I already had some health conditions before I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the treatment both exacerbated and added to them. I’m still dealing with long-term side effects of this – and of course the implications of having an altered BRCA gene.
My diagnosis changed my life in good ways too
It’s not easy to find a ‘new normal’ after a cancer diagnosis, but I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to use creative writing both as an outlet for, and a break from, what’s happened. In fact, this renewed focus on writing has gone further than I could have imagined.
A few years after diagnosis, I became the first writer-in-residence at a cancer care centre in Nottingham. I then decided to go back to university and achieved an MA with distinction in creative writing. I’ve been shortlisted and longlisted in prestigious competitions like the Bridport Prize and last month my debut poetry book – How not to multitask – was published by Wild Pressed Books.
I’ve altered my career path and am now a poet and writer, which I love. My recent projects have included poetry commissions, proofreading, and ghost-writing memoirs. I’ve run workshops on creative writing for people living with cancer and made audio recordings of others’ work, as well as my own.
It means a lot that my experience has helped others
It was the idea of finding a ‘new normal’ after cancer which inspired the theme of my new poetry pamphlet.
When you’re going through cancer, ‘normal’ life is still carrying on alongside it. You’re juggling both everyday issues and life-changing ones, all at once. It was this extreme juggling act that inspired the title How not to multitask.
It’s important to me that poetry is accessible to everyone and if it can also help others, even better. People who've had cancer tell me my writing helps them feel heard and less alone. Those who've not experienced it say my poems help them understand what it can be like.
Not all of my writing is about health though, and even some of the pieces which are have a comic element. If a poem is described as being ‘about cancer’ for example, people assume it will be depressing – and sometimes the piece quite rightly is. But parts of my work are also amusing because, in many challenging situations, where would we be without humour?
You can find out more about Jo's creative writing on her website. To order a copy of How not to multitask, contact Jo on her site, via Twitter or on Instagram. The ebook version is available to purchase on Amazon.
If you have had a diagnosis of primary breast cancer and are looking for things to help you move forward, our Becca app might have what you need.