“The book shares stories of how people, including myself, deal with cancer, often through avoidance, denial, and conflict, but also through quiet courage, resilience, and humour. I hope it provides comfort and reassurance to anyone struggling with the complex emotional reactions that follow a cancer diagnosis.” Read Charles Hayter’s full Q&A about his book Cancer Confidential: Backstage Dramas in the Radiation Clinic below.
1)Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
I worked for many years as a radiation oncologist (a cancer doctor who specializes in radiation treatment), and during my training and career I was very aware of the shortcomings of my training in dealing with the difficult emotional encounters with patients and their families that occur every day in the clinic. Cancer is, after all, a devastating diagnosis that elicits profound feelings such as fear, anger, and desperation. Having to deal with the emotional turmoil of my father’s cancer and death brought the shortcomings of my training into even sharper focus. So, I decided to write a book that fills in some of the gaps: a book that doesn’t focus on the biological disease or its treatment but on the emotional impact of cancer on patients, their loved ones, and doctors.
I’ve always had an interest in writing – my first degree was in English and Drama, and I am a produced playwright – and throughout my career I kept scribbled notes about encounters with patients, families, and colleagues. It was only after I retired that I began to organize these notes into stories. The book shares stories of how people, including myself, deal with cancer, often through avoidance, denial, and conflict, but also through quiet courage, resilience, and humour. I hope it provides comfort and reassurance to anyone struggling with the complex emotional reactions that follow a cancer diagnosis.
2) This book must have been very emotionally challenging to write, given your personal experience with your father being diagnosed with cancer. How did this affect your writing process?
Yes, the stories are linked by my personal account of my father’s cancer and death. I found many connections between my reactions to his illness and those of my patients and their families. My relationship with my father was difficult, and it was emotionally challenging to write openly and honestly about it. Writing about it stirred up a lot of painful memories about our relationship, and at times I was tempted to back off and self-censor. But the words of a writing mentor kept flashing in my mind: “don’t tiptoe around the furnace.” Ultimately, it was helpful for me to travel back through the furnace of our relationship and my family life, and in writing about it I achieved a level of closure and peace with what happened. I hope that my honesty resonates with and perhaps helps others who face difficult family situations.
3) You’ve mentioned that each of the stories are fictionalized accounts of real events/experiences that you’ve had with patients. What was the process like of choosing which ones to highlight?
Yes, in order to protect the original patients’ confidentiality, the characters in the stories are fictionalized amalgams of characteristics I’ve observed in patients over the years. I changed genders, ethnicities, occupations, and sometimes sexual orientations to protect the original patients’ identities. I chose the stories based on their vividness in my memory, which is likely based on the emotional impact they had on me at that moment. I also wanted to highlight the common scenarios which occurred with great frequency throughout my career – such as the adult child who tries to interfere in their parent’s treatment, or the patient who refuses conventional therapy. These encounters occurred with such frequency in my career that I’m sure cancer patients and their families will recognize themselves.
4) What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
I enjoyed working with Meg Patterson, my editor, and appreciated her gentle, insightful guidance. The book began as a rather amorphous collection of unlinked stories, and it was Meg who helped organize the stories into a cohesive whole with a narrative arc. She also gave me the prod I needed to use my father’s illness – which early on was just one story along many – and expand it to link all the other stories in the book. This decision meant the book is grounded in my personal experience with cancer.