A Sidebar: How’s It going?

In the London Review of Books (starting with A Diagnosis in September) I’ve been writing a more or less monthly memoir of my life in the sixties and seventies when I lived with Doris Lessing, and my continuing relationship with her until her death last year at 94. It is also an ongoing portrait of my incurable cancer. The 7th instalment will be in the next issue of the LRB. They are broodings, considerations, questions about my life then and now. But they are long pieces taking a long view. In the meantime, stuff is going on that hasn’t got a place in the LRB essays. Everydaynesses. I’m going to try to use this blog as if it were a running sidebar to the longer pieces, and see if it’s useful. Things that crop up in my cancer and memory world that don’t fit into the format of the essays I’m writing.

I’m writing a kind of partwork which will, with rethinking and editing, perhaps become a book, a patchwork of the partwork. These more immediate ‘diaries’ on this blog will be included when and if the whole thing comes together as a single text.

What’s made me want to do this is the past week of my medical life.  You can catch up on the merry tale, as well as my arrival at Doris Lessing’s house aged fifteen, in the LRB online. Their website has several of my pieces available to read for free as well as some that need you to be a subscriber to read.


I have finished the initial treatment (or the only treatment) for my lung tumour and its travels around my lymph nodes. Little sidebars themselves? I’ve had the chemo and the radiotherapy, and next week will be scanned to see what the results are. I already had mild pulmonary fibrosis before the cancer arrived. That is as incurable as the lung cancer I have, but it depends on how fast it progresses, and it was still mild at the time of my annual scan that showed up the small tumour. There was a known risk that radiotherapy would inflame the fibrosis, and it has, in spades. Last week I found myself so breathless after very little movement that it brought on the first panic attack of my life. Or so I realised that’s what it was when the terror died down. A coughing fit caused by me walking a few feet into the bathroom left me gasping for air, unable to take in enough to live through the next moment. I did, and it has happened twice more. So now I know I won’t die of the attack and have been given some ways to deal with it(a hand-held fan, a small dose of oral morphine before I prepare to move, and a special kind of breathing.) Now I’m simply terrified of going through that terror again, even if it won’t kill me. I am reluctant to get out of bed, move snailwise very small distances, have lost all courage.

Just before that happened, I fell down a couple of steps to the bathroom at four o’clock on Friday morning, and broke my right wrist. Now it’s in plaster and won’t mend they say for 8 weeks. really not helpful and is a new kind of ongoing pain. My left hand is OK, and I’m left-handed, but it’s a slow and wearying effort to type one-handed. One other thing in what my wonderful palliative care ‘key worker’, S, calls ‘my awful week’, is that the fibrosis flaring up is now more likely to kill me through an infection, than the lung cancer. What started out as 2-3 years if I had the treatment is now an unknown quantity. I’m a miserablist, so it’s not surprising I’m feeling that death is rather imminent. My feelings and thoughts about that are for an instalment of its own in the LRB.

So I’m not cheery or brave or serene at the moment, whatever the tone of my memoir writing. I’ve got a broken wrist which has nothing to do with my condition(s), but which gnaws away as if it had the priority of a wrist of someone who was otherwise healthy. it hasn’t been a good week, and I’m fucking fed-up. And sorry for myself. What, should I keep a stiff upper lip?

12 thoughts on “A Sidebar: How’s It going?

  1. I happened upon your blog by accident and am so glad I did. You are an incredible writer and I am honored that I will get to know you. I am sorry you are having a hard time, just remember that it is OK to cry….a lot

  2. Dear lovely, kind, inspiring Jenny Diski,

    This note is in lieu of just sitting there holding your unbroken hand for a few moments. Or bringing you a cup of tea. Or pointing out the daffodils in bloom, frilly and madly bright. I’m sure this week will slowly improve. I’m finding it hard to say much else (my mother had a lung cancer, we sat together through many a 4am moment), but please take comfort in knowledge that you’re appreciated by many, strangers and friends alike. The moments you’re going through are so familiar, your thoughts precious and clear. Stay warm, take it slow, do a little gentle jigging to clear those lungs, and take care.

    Warmest regards,

  3. Fuck fuckity fuck fuck, if you don’t mind my saying so.

    A friend was talking to me last week about a writer he doesn’t like – always seems to make it about himself, he said. Then he added: but Jenny Diski can write about herself as much as she likes and I just keep liking her more.

    • That’s nice. But I suppose there are people enough who I drive off with my me-ness. Me, for example sometimes. Still, the good thing about writing is that it’s the readers’ problem to read or not. Your initial exclamation puts my situation precisely. Thank you.

  4. No, you shouldn’t give another thought to Keeping Stiff Upper Lip, which only Brits would appreciate anyway and fuck ’em. If wallowing instead makes you feel better, in God’s name have a wallow. This is the time, kid – Do what feels best to you. Refashion consciousness itself in service to *you.*

  5. I love your honesty. You speak the truth, the very damnation of all the insult! Life flirting with you in such a heinous manner. Should I find you with a stiff upper lip thru all of this mayhem I would have to question your sanity.

    I wish I could offer to intern, if for no other reason than to type as you spoke. It would be an honor.

  6. That really is a clusterfuck of health misfortune, the full catastrophe. There aren’t any useful words, but if it helps at all there are cancer patients all over the shop reading this and muttering “thank you”, for speaking up for all those moments when dignity, serenity, wit all scarper out the bathroom window as we’re sprawled on the tiles in a fury of disbelief. Take care, you are so appreciated.

  7. A wobbly lip is usually an appropriate response, be at peace with your lip. Forgive the flippancy, if you’re a miserablist then you’re an inspiring one.
    Bill Bisgood

  8. That’s the shittiest week I’ve heard of. I’m sorry you’re having such a fucking awful time. I can’t think of a joke. I would just go with the snotty, quivering upper lip. I hope next week’s a bit better.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s