The event which changed my life occurred in 2009, when a hard lump under my left breast turned out to be malignant. In retrospect this illness was to be the single most transformative experience in my life, though I did not know it then.
Nothing could have prepared me for the word ‘cancer’. My heart started palpitating and I felt dizzy in my head; with just one word my world had changed. There were decisions to make, all the while knowing that something was growing inside which should not have been there.
When you’ve had brain surgery as I’d had, any other operation seems mild. What I underwent the second time felt easy from a surgical perspective. Chemotherapy was tough, especially on the day itself, when I’d end up zombie-like from the cocktail of drugs – but totally survivable. It was only after I finished chemo that my world collapsed.
I had endured the worst and believed that I should be well. The problem was that I did not feel well, not even after months. I was listless, out-of-sorts and far from being myself. Nothing seemed right. I saw a counsellor. I stayed with friends outside London. I continued exercising. Yet I remained in a deep malaise.
Out of desperation, I began writing. It was just a simple story about my grandfather’s favourite chair – I really had no idea what I was doing – except that putting words onto a page made me feel better. I showed the story to a friend who is a professional developmental editor, and she encouraged me to continue writing.
Not long afterwards, I recalled a dream I’d once had – of writing a novel loosely inspired by my great-grandmother’s life. The project which became The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds absorbed me. It gave purpose back to my life. Every page I wrote, every character I created, energised me further. The novel’s themes of family, food and friendship lifted me up. Its other major theme of identity made me re-examine my own tortured identity in a positive way. Writing saved my life. And now I can’t stop – I love it.