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GUEST POST: Surviving, Scribbling, and Second Chances by Catherine Yaffe

Just weeks after releasing her second crime thriller, Catherine faced a devastating breast cancer diagnosis. Remarkably, she turned to her notebook and pen and continued to write. This year, she's not just surviving, but thriving. Here, she shares her experiences.

In May 2021 I released my second crime thriller, The Web They Wove, and I was on target to achieve my goal of three books a year for the next five years.

Two weeks later, after a routine mammogram, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That same week, my dad had returned home from hospital for end-of-life care. Also that week, my mum had two strokes and was diagnosed with mixed dementia. On the Saturday of that week my son married his fiancé, Sadie.

That’s a lot, right? We’re only a small family, and I had moved into my parents to care for my darling dad.

Any thoughts of writing, talking about writing or promoting my recently launched book took a back seat. Everything closed down to a limited world of organising care for my parents whilst watching my calendar fill up with dates for further biopsies, surgery, recovery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy.

It was relentless and all consuming.

What no one tends to talk about with a cancer diagnosis is the waiting around. For results, for appointments. Honestly, it’s boring! As a nation we were still at the tail end of Covid, so no one was allowed to attend any appointments with me. Our beloved NHS were at the extreme end, with two oncology nurses for every 20 cancer patients, it’s usually one-on-one care. I hadn’t known what to expect, of course, but sitting in hospital corridors was lonely. About a week in, I rooted around in my bag and found a scrappy old notebook and a tiny pencil, and I started scribbling. At first it was just about the sights, sounds and smell of the hospital, the urgency with which the health care professionals strode down the corridors dressed in full PPE. Slowly, I turned my reflections to myself, probably for the first time since I’d been diagnosed, and that little book became my saviour. I couldn’t control anything that was going on around me, but I could make some kind of sense of it by writing it all down.

I had an idea already for Book four, so, inspired, I bought a new notebook (any excuse), and took so much solace in world building, characterisation, and plotlines. One of the chemo nurses commented one day that I was always writing and asked me what it was. I explained that I write crime thrillers. She was so excited, ‘I’ve never met a real-life author before,’ she said as she pumped poison into my veins. About a week later I was greeted with three nurses who had each bought a copy of my books and asked me to sign them – which was a weird but lovely and life-affirming thing. I signed their books as they hooked me up to the IV, and they grilled me over what happened next. We made a deal: if they kept me alive, I would never stop writing! Seemed like a winner to me.

Once treatment had finished around nine months later, I had the outline for my next book, When We Deceive. It was time to rest, recuperate and spend time with my dad in his final days.

Without dad, I would never have been a writer. He introduced me to the iconic crime thriller writers of Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King, James Patterson, John Le Carre at an age when I probably didn’t even understand them, but it was always about the words. If I didn’t understand I’d ask dad and we’d discuss it for hours. We shared a ‘love’ of serial killings, we’d chat about the motives, the psychology behind it. We were obsessed with the Zodiac killer and deciphering the ‘code’.

I used our precious time together to go over the plot for When We Deceive and he’d call me out for being too predictable, too cliched or just not gritty enough. After many rounds of editing, it was finally published in April 2023. I dedicated the book to him, and he will always be between the pages, his thoughts woven into the storyline. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming feedback for the book is how emotional it is, and on reflection I can see why.

Pacing has never been my strong suit. I tend to throw myself into everything at 100mph, and it has been my downfall for as long as I can remember. In 2002, after an extended period of unexplained illness I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue/ME. After defeating cancer, I was also left with nerve damage in my feet, and my energy levels were on the floor. I was also being pushed through a medically induced menopause. I couldn’t overdo it; I didn’t have the energy. I had no choice but to listen to my body. I had to honour the changes my wonderful, battle-scarred body had been through. I changed my diet, took gentle exercise, developed my own form of yoga and I discovered the power of mindfulness and mediation. All of this helped with the fibro, and I began to have rare bursts of energy. Happy days.

It took me about 12 months to get back into my writing routine properly. I’d always written for about four hours solid in a morning, broke for a walk and lunch then slept in the afternoon. Without that rest I wouldn’t be of any use the next day. That’s still the case, but without jinxing it, I’ve got better at taking life at a slower pace. It means I’m not missing out, and I can still achieve all I want to, just not as fast as I wanted it to happen. Besides writing I fill my days with other things that fill me with joy; gardening, time with my son’s dog Milo, swimming, crocheting – who even is this woman? Life is about the experiences, and I intend to experience everything!

When it was time for me to re-enter the world of social media, the response I received from the writing community, authors, readers, book bloggers and reviewers was humbling. Without exception I received DM’s, cards, emails from people who I barely knew or had never met, encouraging me, supporting me, and just generally having my back. I was moved to tears daily. I was incredibly lucky to meet a few in Harrogate last year, and at various events and it’s an absolute honour and blessing to work in the same space as such wonderful human beings. I even won an award, for being inspiring! It’s the other way around, believe me. Leaning into that support, not staying insular which we often do as writers was vital to me, and still is.

We lost dad in December 2021, and mum is now in a care home, so I can start to fully take part in writing life again and it’s wonderful. I often have to pinch myself that this is my reality.

And whilst I say I’m better at pacing, this year I’ve already been to Bay Tales and did a reading at Noir at The Bar. I’ve just got back from CrimeFest where I was on a panel for self-published authors, and I have various book talks and panel events planned throughout the year, plus I’m organising my own event at Wakefield library for National Crime Reading Month.

My mantra? I did not kick cancer’s ass to live a mediocre life (but at my own pace!)


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