How to Write a Character with Cancer – From a Cancer Patient

We’re all familiar with the depiction of cancer on TV. Someone goes to the doctor for a couple of tests. In the very next scene, they are in the doctor’s office. The grave faced doctor gives them the bad news. A minute later, they are in the hospital hooked up to an IV in their arm. Shortly after that, they lose all their hair and spend most of their time bed ridden.

Unfortunately, this isn’t everyone’s cancer experience. Some of this is also an oversimplification of the whole cancer experience. I will tell you about what I learned from my won experience. However, I encourage you to do your research, because everyone’s cancer experience is different.

Why should you listen to me? Because I had cancer myself and went through a very strong chemotherapy regimen.

Disclaimer: You might not want to read this if you are currently going through chemotherapy or about to start. This article has emotional triggers. It discusses much of the hardship that can happen during chemotherapy.


First, let me go through some of the things fiction often gets wrong.

Chemotherapy is not often delivered through a needle in a vein in the arm.

If someone is getting chemo on a regular basis, they would most likely be given a device called a port.

The port is a device used to draw blood. It is surgically placed under the skin, usually in the right side of the chest. It is attached to a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) that is guided (threaded) into a large vein above the right side of the heart. It is placed there because that is the biggest vein in the body. During chemo sessions, a needle is inserted through the skin into the port to draw blood or give fluids.

The port must be cleaned with a saline flush every few weeks. The port will stay in the patient for many weeks, months or even years. When I had a port, it looked like a bump beneath my skin. My doctors gave me a heart-shaped port–as if the heart shape was supposed to make the whole experience of cancer more cheerful. I was put to sleep when the port was surgically put in me. Yet when it was taken out, they actually did the surgery while I was awake. My doctor simply used a local anesthetic to numb the area.

Getting surgery while awake was a very bizarre experience. Even though it wasn’t painful, the pressure on my chest and the noise of the drill made it all very unsettling. I cracked a lot of jokes with my surgeon to put myself more at ease.

Giving your character a port can serve as a way to dramatize the experience of cancer while also showing the audience that you did your research.

Cancer patients don’t always get their diagnosis right away.

In the movies, a patient gets their diagnosis in like five minutes. In real life, it often takes a month of tests and waiting to hear one’s results. People in the cancer community call the anxiety induced by this waiting period, “scanxiety.” Even though I understand that things can’t happen in real time in fiction, overlooking this waiting period is a missed opportunity. This waiting period is an opportunity to build tension.

Many forms of cancer today are survivable.

Of course this all depends on the type of cancer and the stage. But often in fiction when someone gets cancer, the immediate assumption is that they are going to die. The reality is that for a well researched and well funded disease like Breast Cancer, about 85% of patients will survive. Especially if they are young and have no other pre-existing conditions.

Survival is less certain for people with a Stage IV cancer. So if you want to heighten the drama or the risk of death, give the character a rare form of cancer or a late stage where the cancer has metastasized throughout the body.

Chemotherapy patients can live healthy, normal lives

A common fictional depiction of a chemotherapy patient is that they have lost all their hair, or are stuck in bed for months. While this is the case for some cancer patients, this isn’t the case for all of them. There are many different types of chemotherapy treatment, and different people have different reactions. And not all patients need chemotherapy. For some, surgery or radiation is good enough.

Some chemotherapies don’t cause hair loss. Some chemotherapy only makes a patient sick for a few days, and then they go back to work afterward. Some chemotherapy doesn’t even make the patient nauseous. It really all depends on the person’s diagnosis, treatment plan, as well as their own health.

I did lose my hair and become nauseous. But I was actually able to work throughout the majority of the chemotherapy process. Usually I would be nauseous for a couple of days after treatment, but then feel normal for the next few weeks until I got another infusion. I got one infusion every three weeks.


Overlooked Realities of Cancer:

Below I will list the realities of cancer that are often not captured in fiction. And yet these realities can still make for good drama, characterization and story telling.

Even though there are many forms of cancer that can be survived, there is drama to be found in the struggle after survival.

Many people assume that once the patient is finished with chemotherapy, all the hardship is over and they go off to live happily ever after. Yet the reality is that there are struggles to be found in the aftermath of cancer. Some patients experience a decreased quality of life. Some patients had to make large sacrifices in order to survive their prognosis: giving up a job, leaving an unhealthy relationship, surgically removing a body part or even giving up their own fertility.

Medical Abuse:

While I am sure that most medical professionals have a genuine interest in “doing no harm,” there is the unfortunate reality that medical abuse does happen. Often it’s not out of malevolence. It’s from medical professionals being tired and overworked, or it’s from inept employees keeping their job because the practice is short-staffed.

Regardless of the reason, many people with chronic illness have had a case of their health providers making a mistake, not taking them seriously, not being professional, or causing a problem by trying to rush.

I myself had a chemotherapy nurse who made mistakes on me three times. After the third time, I reported her to the clinic’s supervisor. He said that they basically had an entire book of complaints about this woman, but that there was nothing they could do since they needed the staff. I then even wrote to my state medical board to complain about her, since other patients and nurses privately told me they were unhappy. And yet nothing happened.

Medical Racism:

In the U.S., black women have the highest rates of death from breast cancer and cervical cancer.

Studies have shown that the African American community faces discrimination and implicit bias in the medical setting.

Dayna Bowen Matthew’s book, Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Healthcare (2015), explores the idea that unconscious biases held by health care providers might explain racial disparities in health.

If there was an author who wanted to highlight this disparity, I think that would make for a compelling and powerful story that needs to be told.

Cancer patients can experience denial about their illness.

Facing the reality that one has a deadly illness is not easy. There are different reactions to threats. Fight, flight, or freeze. Some people choose to ignore the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist. Some people engage in magical thinking or buy into snake oil solutions. Even Steve Jobs (one of the wealthiest men on the planet) refused medical treatment for his cancer, because he thought he had other solutions. He ended up dead.

My doctors have told me sad stories about patients who had entirely treatable cancers, but ended up dead because they refused treatment.

There are people who try to control a cancer patient’s treatment.

When I was undergoing treatment, I had the experience of people pressuring me not to get chemotherapy or surgery. I had to tell these people in the most polite way to leave me alone.

Cancer patients often have to make a series of life altering decisions in a short amount of time.

This is another reality of cancer that could make for good drama in a book. People often have just a few weeks to make choices about their surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy regimen, and fertility preservation procedure. Surprisingly, there are many different options to choose from, and doctors often make their patients choose instead of telling them what to do outright. This can definitely lead to decision fatigue, as most people are not used to making a bunch of life altering decisions about their bodies in a matter of weeks.

Romantic partners can become MORE abusive after a diagnosis.

Most people would imagine after a cancer diagnosis that a person’s romantic partner would become more supportive. It’s hard to imagine a person being abusive to a cancer patient. It seems downright rotten in fact. And indeed, many people do have partners that step up and become extra supportive after a diagnosis.

However, this is not the case for everyone.

Unfortunately, what I have learned from being part of the online breast cancer community, is that partner abuse can actually escalate (rather than de-escalate) after a diagnosis. This was something I saw numerous women discuss. They often had stories about how once they started going through chemotherapy and surgery, their husbands would start becoming more distant or abusive.

What explains such horrible behavior? My own theory is that if a person is in a partnership where they are doing much of the housework, child care, or finances, and then they suddenly stop, the other person can become more stressed out as they take on a greater load. Not everyone is capable of taking on this extra load without becoming stressed out and toxic in the process.

There are also people who cheat on their partners or leave them after diagnosis.

Men more likely than women to leave partner with cancer (Reuters)

Divorce Risk Higher When Wife Gets Sick (The New York Times)

Cancer patients and domestic violence: More common than you might think (MD Anderson)

The Loneliness of Cancer

After I shared this article, many other people who experienced cancer also mentioned the loneliness of cancer.

On TV they often make it look like cancer patients are constantly surrounded by a large, supportive group of friends and family members. This certainly is the case with some people. But this isn’t always the case. There are often people who go through cancer alone. There are also people who had family members supporting them at first. But then when these family members realized that the ordeal was going to go on for months or even years, they backed off.

Cancer patients have to spend a ridiculous amount of time consoling OTHER people about their own illness.

Cancer is a scary thing. And when the loved ones of a cancer patient find out about their illness, they do a number of things. They freak out, cry, and go into panic mode. Indeed, most people aren’t taught how to deal with the reality of a loved one having a chronic or deadly illness. So unfortunately, many people can start unloading on the cancer patient themselves with the expectation that the cancer patient is supposed to do the emotional labor of dealing with all their fears and woes.

And yet the cancer patient does NOT want to hear someone tell them, “You’re gonna die! I’m so scared you’re gonna die!” People would say this stuff to me all the time. I had enough of my own worries to deal with, I didn’t need other people unloading on me at the same time. I had to tell people in the kindest way possible to STFU.

Some women lose their fertility after their battle with cancer.

The battle with cancer is already traumatic enough. But it’s an extra stab of the knife afterward when a woman may have to give up her dreams of being a mother. This isn’t always the case. If a woman is young, there is still a good chance she could give birth, but it becomes harder the older a woman gets.

There are medical treatments that can potentially preserve fertility, but they are not full proof.

Egg freezing, for example, is ridiculously expensive. It usually costs over $10,000, and most of the time, health insurance won’t cover it. Also, when I did my own research, I found that the results weren’t even that effective. The overall chance of a live birth from a frozen egg is 39%.

Many cancer patients become more spiritual as a result of their struggles.

So far, much of what I said was negative. But, there are some positives as well.

As the old expression goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. When someone has to face their own mortality in addition to going through scary and uncomfortable medical procedures, the belief in a higher power can go a long way.

Many cancer patients end up realizing what is truly important in life.

There’s nothing like confronting your own mortality to make you realize what’s truly important. Many cancer patients change their lives for the better after defeating their illness. This can involve making healthier choices, getting out of a toxic relationship, pursuing a job that they always wanted, prioritizing family and friends, and becoming internally stronger overall.

Despite all the negatives I’ve mentioned, cancer survivors are often very emotionally strong people.

I hope this was helpful to you. Now go write something cool and feel free to share it in the comments.

Related Articles:

Coping with Global Pandemic – Thoughts From a Cancer Survivor (Stories From Tomorrow)

My Stories About Illness:

“Artisanal Cancer” (Teleport Magazine)

How far will an influencer go to get likes? In this short story about a post scarcity future, people are literally killing themselves out of boredom. Chemotherapy treatment has become the next edgy fad.

“The Red Devil” (Vine Leaves Press)

This is a 50 word story about chemotherapy treatment.

“Fibromyalgia Fire” (Cuento Magazine)

This is a microfiction about fibromyalgia.

“The Red Devil” – Microfiction on Chemotherapy

(A picture of me shortly after chemotherapy)

I am happy to share that Vine Leaves Press has published my 50 word fiction about chemotherapy in their daily mail. On a daily basis they send their subscribers a microfiction.

For those who are looking to get their microfictions published, I would definitely recommend Vine Leaves Press.

The story I wrote is called “Red Devil.” It is about a chemotherapy drug known as doxorubicin (Adriamycin). Cancer patients call Adriamycin the “Red Devil” because of a few reasons: it is red, it comes in a giant scary needle, and it is one of the harshest chemotherapies that there is. Not only does it make all your hair fall out, but it knocks your ass out and makes you sick for days. I am happy to be done with all that now.

Read My Microfiction on Cancer Here:

“The Red Devil” – Vine Leaves Press

More 50 Word Fiction from Vine Leaves Press:

50 Give or Take

For those who like to write Microfiction, Vine Leaves Press could be a great option for sharing your material. Or for those who like to read it, you can subscribe to their daily mail.

Side Note:

The picture of me on Vine Leaves Press’ website is pre-hijab because I sent them the story and picture like a year ago. That doesn’t bother me too much as I grew up in a Western culture, so I don’t feel naked without the hijab. I wear the hijab these days for many reasons: modesty, positive representation for Islam, to remind myself to submit to God, and to humble my own ego and vanity. But I know there are pictures out there on the web of me without the hijab as I have done art, videos, photography and modeling in the past. So, it doesn’t bother me at all. But every woman is different and it’s important for every woman to be able to make their own personal choices on the matter.

Related Posts

Coping with Global Pandemic – Thoughts From a Cancer Survivor

Life on Jupiter’s Ocean Moon Europa – Microfiction

“Europa Tour” by Jessica Brook Johnson

Debra pulled a lever, filling her submarine’s ballast tanks with more water. The boat continued its descent through Europa’s narrow sea trenches. The thrusters groaned with effort against the building current. The Earther tourists didn’t notice. They pressed their noses against the windows, oohing and aahing at the sights. Translucent invertebrates swam around hydrothermal vents. Bioluminescent plankton glowed like fairy dust.

Debra answered all the tourist’s questions until someone asked, “And what’s that colorful confetti-like stuff we see sprinkled around?”

“Another type of plankton,” she lied, deciding not to tell them it was pieces of paint from previously crashed submarines.

Author Note: I haven’t seen much exploration of Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa in science fiction, so I wrote a 100 word piece about it.

Image Source: See Here

“The Spider and the Stars” – Science Fiction, Insect Farming, [Review]

(Image generated with Playground AI)

A new, controversial idea for saving the climate has been getting press lately. Insect farming.

Well…when I say “new,” I mean new for the western world. Eating insects has been a traditional cuisine in some African, Asian and Latin American cultures. In Ghana, for example, there are people who collect winged termites during the spring rains, fry them, roast them, and make them into bread. See more examples at National Geographic.

Even in Western cultures, the idea of insect farming isn’t completely revolutionary. After all, we eat a delicious, sweet, sticky substance farmed from insects called “honey,” which is basically bee vomit. We wear a comfortable fabric called silk, farmed from worms.

Of course there is that Fear Factor image of people putting writhing spiders or meal worms in their mouths. But realistically, if industries did start selling insect meat on a commercial basis, they’d probably find a way to make it look less disgusting and be more edible. After all, we do love crabs and lobsters, which are basically large sea insects. At one point lobsters were considered disgusting enough to be prison food. Now it’s a luxury cuisine. I imagine with insects, they’d probably be crushed into some kind of protein powder and then blended into things. The less they can look like insects as food, the better.

Despite the controversy, there are environmental benefits to insect farming. Our current animal agricultural systems are destructive for the environment.

“This sector relies heavily on water and carbon-intensive farming of grains at a time when the cost of agrochemical inputs are climbing and freshwater resources are becoming increasingly unreliable. Globally, animal farms consume more than a third of the world’s total grain production. In the U.S. the share is closer to half. Insect-based animal feeds could be this industry’s best shot at building climate resilience, while also helping to manage a food waste crisis.” (Bloomberg)

Meanwhile, insect farming has potential to utilize less land and leave less of a carbon footprint on the planet. “Black soldier fly larvae, in particular, hold promise: Known in the industry by the acronym BSFL, these infant bugs serve as high-quality chicken and fish feed and require 1,000 times less land per unit of protein produced compared to soy production, between 50 and 100 times less water, and zero agrochemical inputs.” (Bloomberg)

The EU has even approved three insects for human consumption: crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers.

Now enter DK Mok‘s wonderful short solarpunk story, “The Spider and the Stars,” published in Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers.

True to the solarpunk genre, the story is focused on themes of ecology and sustainability. DK Mok is truly a talented hard sci-fi writer who immerses the reader into the bright and optimistic world of cyberpunk with much vibrant detail. She brings us such interesting details: tree planting drones, glowing festive solar fairy lights, biogas produced by cheese, cabins built of photovoltaic glass and reclaimed timber, snappily dressed proxy droids, and most revolutionary of all–spiders in space!

She goes into depth about how insect farming would work. And yes, she does tackle the issue of peoples’ inherent disgust and how such a thing could be made palatable.

Like all great science fiction, this story brings up a current world problem and paints a picture of how futuristic solutions would pan out.

I will add that the story also carried my attention with its good sense of humor and a likeable main character, who clearly has affection for her small, multiple legged friends.

Links

DK Mok

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers

Microfiction on Krampus

“A Krampus Story” by Jessica Brook Johnson

“Profits are down,” said the financial advisor, Sam Krupp, from behind his desk.

Santa put his face in his hands. “We already replaced the elves with sweatshops. What else can we do?”

“Start marketing earlier,” Sam Krupp suggested. “How about July?”

Santa banged his fist on the desk. “Six months of holiday jingles on the radio? That’s Hell on Earth!”

“It’s a competitive economy, sir.” Sam Krupp shrugged, which almost made his winter cap fall off his horns. Over the years, Krampus found that rather than dragging people to Hell, it was far easier to bring Hell to the people.

[Author’s note: I wrote this story in response to a challenge to create a dark, 100 word story about Christmas.]

“Five Star Bathroom” – Microfiction, Humor, Travel

Original Image Made on Playground AI

“Mama snores like a chainsaw battling rocks. My sister and I retreat to the five-star hotel’s bathroom and close the door. I lay on a pile of blankets under the sink. My sister is by the tub. The snoring is now so faint it’s a lullaby.”

This microfiction of mine was published by Cuento Magazine. They publish prose and poetry under 280 characters on their twitter page.

What I wrote is based off a true story which took place about 12 years ago.

A Microfiction on Fibromyalgia

(Image Generated with Playground AI)

“The fibromyalgia burns through my skin. I lay crumpled up in bed, staring outside at an oak tree. Flowers blossom from mottled branches. A yellow warbler feeds her chicks in the gentle pitter patter of rain. The fire within me cools to a simmer.”

See it here on Cuento Magazine on Twitter, along with other microfictions.

Also. Here are some resources on chronic pain below.

Chronic Pain Champions Official Website

Chronic Pain Champions Free Ebook

Neuroplastic Pain

Curable App

Mayoclinic Guide to Fibromyalgia (Book on Amazon)

Unlearn Your Pain by Howard Schubiner (Book on Amazon)

#PitDark is Today!

“#PitDark is the first and only Twitter pitch event to highlight literature of a “darker” nature. Importantly, this is not limited to horror works; however, any pitched manuscript must contain an element of horror or darker writing. Examples of such categories include pure horror novels, dark fantasy, murder mysteries, psychological horror stories, non-fiction works about darker subjects, etc. MG, YA, NA, and adult age categories are welcome.”

See More Details Here

Interview with Space Squid – How to Start a Fiction Magazine

Image Source

About ten years ago, there were six big publishers for books. Now there are five. And soon there may only be four. Combined with the competition introduced by self-publishing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for authors to get traditionally published. This is on top of the supply problems introduced by Covid, and the fact that there was a massive exodus from the publishing industry back in March of 2022. About 1% of people in the publishing industry quit.

With all of these factors in play, some people are now more interested in creating their own independent platforms, or at least are interested in learning how they work.

I decided to interview some of the staff on various speculative fiction magazines along with indie publishers to see how that works. The first people I interviewed were the staff of the humor sci-fi magazine, Space Squid.

JBJ: Thank you so much for your help. Let’s say I started a free online blog—which I could hopefully to turn into a literary magazine or publisher later. Would I need to make a contract with the people submitting to the blog?

SS: I wouldn’t bother for blog entries. You might want to keep the email thread in which they agree to write for you; we’re a little more formal since we’re publishing stories.

JBJ: What inspired you to create an online magazine?

SS: We’re frustrated writers. Also there’s not a lot of spaces for funny scifi/speculative.

JBJ: For other people who are interested in doing the same thing, what were the steps you took starting out?

SS: Hmm… well we published on paper first, using some old photocopiers. That was more work than it was worth. Today we’d either go digital right away or send it to a printer for better quality and less hassle. We do publish one paper issue per year for Armadillocon.org.

As frustrated writers, we know a lot of other frustrated or semi-successful writers, and some of them were willing to send us material for our first issues. We reached out to some local bookstores and got some shelf space that way. But really, we’re marginally successful and we just kept doing it and publishing stuff we liked.

JBJ: What kind of services do you have to pay for to run a literary magazine?

SS: When publishing digitally, not much. We run our own WordPress site on a shared server. So the main costs are 1) the server and domain, 2) payments to writers, 3) the annual paper issue, and 4) time. 3 and 4 are the most expensive.

JBJ: Do you mind giving me a figure for a starting budget?

SS: Hmmm… maybe $200/yr for a digital-only publication?

JBJ: Would you especially recommend anyone or any website for the following services: legal, production, editing.

SS: I think we wrote our own writer contract. It’s clear enough to stand up in court, and that’s all we care about. Editing is our responsibility and kind of the core competency we bring to the table. For webhosting, we like hawkhost.com; shared hosting is less than $3/month. Use our referral code, https://my.hawkhost.com/aff.php?aff=1430!

JBJ: What was your greatest challenge?

SS: Just keeping it going. It’s a tough time for writers and publishers. There’s a lot of apathy and we don’t get the kind of readership we’d like. Reading submissions and editing stories takes a lot of time and love.

JBJ: What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?

SS: We do have a few dedicated fans who love our stories and style, and some writers like yourself who understand what we like. Occasionally we get a bit of acclaim or press. And of course we get energy from great stories and publishing first-time or enthusiastic writers.

JBJ: Is there anything else you would recommend for those who are just starting out?

SS: It’s good to have a clear niche picked out — some angle that you can cover better than anyone else because of your skills or POV or because it’s under served. It also helps a ton to have at least one other person onboard who’s as motivated as you are.

JBJ: What are your plans for the future?

SS: We’ve got plans for a premium membership plan that will deliver a lot of fun, useful services to our dedicated readers and writers. It’s called Squid Plus and we’ve got high hopes for it.

JBJ: Great. Thanks for the interview. Have a great day.

STORIES ON SPACE SQUID:

Bob and Beastman’s Honeymoon

Downloading Brunch