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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Sandra Russell talks about The Feeling of Cancer

Sandra Russell lives in Devonport, Auckland with her husband and family. After working in the UK as a Careers Counsellor and becoming the first in the country to be part of a multi-disciplinary Youth Offending Team, she emigrated to New Zealand in 2001 where she studied to become a psychotherapist. Sandra then spent many years working as a Registered Psychotherapist with adults, couples and families, when a diagnosis of incurable cancer propelled her into a different life with an uncertain future. Having spent her working life helping others manage in times of emotional crisis, she found herself having to navigate through the turmoil of diagnosis, treatment and beyond. The Feeling of Cancer is Sandra’s honest and frank account of how she did that. Sandra talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Feeling of Cancer.

The Feeling of Cancer is a deeply personal and honest memoir which delves into my internal, most vulnerable emotional states after I was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer in 2013. Drawing on my background as a psychotherapist, I explore my feelings as I navigate the emotional impact of a traumatic diagnosis and prognosis, intensive treatment, remission and the devastation of relapse. I discovered that cancer doesn’t just threaten your life, but also your very identity. Ultimately, it’s about how making sense of my feelings has helped me to be able to put words to my story and reconnect to myself when I felt lost.

What inspired you to write this book?

My question to myself when I was struggling to manage my diagnosis was “How do I live this life with cancer?” I searched for books, as I always have, that could help me with the emotional distress I was experiencing. I found that whilst the emotional turmoil was often mentioned in passing, books about living with cancer were usually preoccupied with what I term “the medical narrative”, meaning concerned with the details of disease and treatment and the medical system, with little on the effects on the self. I wanted to know how people were feeling; how they were coping or not coping. I desperately needed stories of the self during the different stages of my illness as nourishment, to feel less isolated and to support my own emotional wellbeing. Well used to the difficulties we all face in expressing our deepest and most disturbing feelings, I decided to write the book I was searching for.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Having studied for many years, often with children and work to contend with, I’m an early morning writer and increasingly, since being on long-term medication which causes insomnia, I get up in the wee small hours and put on my classical music, light some incense, and with chocolate and a cuppa, I write while the world sleeps. I also keep a piece of paper and pen on the bedside table as I often wake in the night with a very clear phrase I want to use. I would like to say that I have a routine, but my personality is such that I work best to a deadline. I find that a deadline really galvanises my thinking. That’s one reason why a Master of Creative Writing worked so well for me.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Feeling of Cancer?

A large part of my purpose in writing has been to widen our understanding of what it means to live with cancer, in the hope of resonating with those who are going through similar experiences, whether patients, carers, friends or family. We all need a mirror, a touchstone, in times of great personal challenge. The foundation of The Feeling of Cancer is that emotional awareness and understanding are at the heart of emotional wellbeing. Honesty and truth can offer hope.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

The Feeling of Cancer is full of music because music has been a large part of my life and always a cornerstone of my emotional wellbeing. As far as a song goes, toward the end of the story I describe the very emotionally-uplifting experience of singing the Scottish folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme” at a gathering. The song has personal significance for me, being written in Paisley, Scotland where all of my family were born. I have always sung in choirs but being able to find my voice and encourage others to sing with me was a deeply healing experience.

Another key piece of music in the book is Bach’s Cello Suites which soothes me as I play them on a loop in my isolation ward hospital room whilst undergoing a life-saving but gruelling stem cell transplant.

What did you enjoy the most about writing The Feeling of Cancer?

The deep connections I have made with others through the process, from the early drafts to the finished book. At times the book was painful and difficult to write and this was when the encouragement, support and feedback of others sustained me. Having my experiences acknowledged and understood throughout the writing process has been a true gift and I have wonderful mentors in Siobhan Harvey and Vana Manasiadis at AUT’s Master of Creative Writing.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

My husband Sandy has both lived this experience alongside me and relived it as I’ve been writing. We had a quiet meal together. Very quiet indeed as I’m considered immunocompromised so we picked our favourite local Italian when it was almost empty one night.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I read “The Book of Form and Emptiness” by Ruth Ozeki at the end of 2022 and found it fascinating and beautifully written. Ruth is a Zen Buddhist priest and filmmaker and these areas of her life feed into the sweep of the story of a young boy who hears voices from inanimate objects. It challenges our ideas of mental wellbeing as well as being a story of family, mourning and love.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m very much looking forward to the media roll out for The Feeling of Cancer over the next few months. I wrote it to help others struggling as I have and am already feeling heartened by how it’s being received.


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