My Cancer Is As Strange As My Fiction

I was diagnosed with a cancer with a death rate of 99%. I also just published a novel. And the two have become eerily similar.

Ted Horowitz/Corbis

Six months ago I was discovered to have the tumor Glioblastoma Multiforme living inside my skull. At the same time my new novel Nod was approaching publication in North America. As both the disease and my novel progressed I began to notice eerie similarities between the two, even down to the physical similarity between the eye on the book’s cover and an image of the tumor itself, with its vein-like tendrils spreading out across my brain.

Glioblastoma Multiforme, alas, is the most fatal of all cancers and is known to have a death rate of about 99%. In terms of the amount of life left, the average is one year. The really horrible part is the torturous treatment period of six months. Throughout the last six months I have had toxic drugs pumped into me. My skull has been cut open and cuts have been made at both my brain and the tumor itself. My optic nerve has been severed and I’ve been assaulted by radiation. On and on. All this, not to cure us, but to buy us the second six months.

There are around 75,000 North Americans with the same form of cancer, if you can imagine. I can’t quite. Divide it by 50 states and then try to imagine 3,000 people in each state, blending in, so to speak. And this among all the various forms of cancer out there in massively large numbers. It’s astounding.

I have lost my career as a college teacher, my work as owner of a local news company, and my ability to both read and write. I’ve also lost the most important part of life: music. I've lost the sounds, lost the lyrics, and lost both the songs and lyrics that I used to write. Not a single song is left.

At the same time this has been happening, my latest novel, Nod, is due for publication any day now. And this is where the story gets weird.

The concept of Nod came to me as a sort of dream and fascination I have always had with life and death and how they intertwine. When I wrote the novel I wanted to explore what happens when the world ends while some of us watch it with our eyes painfully open (hence the cover). In my novel, the sun comes one day and almost no one has slept a wink. Only a small few have not lost the ability to sleep, one of them is my character Paul.

Retaining his sanity through sleep, Paul has to watch the horror and insanity that occurs when insomnia rules the world. He watches everything he's known be slowly destroyed, his partner included, sleepless at his side.

And so the similarities between Paul and I emerge.

Since then, I began to see the end of everything. I was going to slowly lose the people I love, as did Paul. Insomnia made the world insane to Paul just as my damaged brain has made the world insane to me.

And this is only beginning of the weird similarities.

I'm not traditionally religious, but I've always been fascinated by all religions and learned a lot from the Bible’s Book of Job. In that famous story God and Satan have a conversation about human beings. Satan says he can ruin them all, but God says he can’t destroy the good Job and gives Satan free rein to break the man.

And so Satan destroys Job’s property, his family, and his body, trying to make Job despair and hate God. But Job pulls himself together and keeps his faith until the end. It’s quite a chapter if you don’t know it.

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And so the first lines of Nod were these words quoted from Book of Job:

And Cain went out from the face of the Lord and

dwelt in the land Nod on the east syde of Eden

I and God both put both Job and Paul literally into Hell. To see what? What’s left, I suppose, when everything is taken from us. But the joke was on me because the loss of everything was now done to me as well. Why? Well, that's the question, isn’t it? I think I wanted to know—and still want to know—what is essential in this world. Well, I do understand now that my novel and my life have made the same journey.

Perhaps strangest similarity between life and Nod lie in the fact that Paul ends up in the Vancouver Hospital seeking help. It's now the same place where I go to for my surgery and drugs. Paul witnessed a room full of the tortured in Nod and I, my fellow patients in the cancer ward.

As the places of Nod grow stranger, so too do my eyes as I see things through the delusions of my drugs. And I finished the book a whole year before my health fell apart.


Today I kind of see my situation as a sort of battle between Me and My Tumour. Which of us will win and which of us will die.

Looking back at my life before all this, and even before I wrote Nod, I think I despaired the human species and thus wrote a fairly tough, dramatic novel in Nod. I often cursed the real world, with its greed and hatred and the lack of love. The rich were worshiped while the poor were ignored. All true, all I still believe.

But the great gift I’ve received from my tumor is the answers to these fears about Earth. As my thinking and worrying fell apart over the last six months, when all my strengths dissolved, what was left was love. The love I feel for my people and the love I feel coming from then.

As for Paul, well, I drove him through the Hell of his world dying but I am so grateful that, in the very last moment of the novel, I left him with peace and the dream of hope.

Through all of this I’ve learned what is important and what isn’t. Somewhere in my mind I must have known all this, but now I know it in my life. And I think it’s all that matters. If I’d lived another 20 years not seeing the point of love, I’d have wasted years, probably avoiding death as I wasted life. But now I get a half a year, or so, to truly live. So how can I resent or mourn things as they are?

And I’m grateful about it all, weird as that may sound. God allowed Job to be put through Hell and he came out the other end as a joyful man. I think God has done the same for me and I find that love does overcome life.

It’s been such a weird story to share with you.

Due to my damaged memory, I couldn’t recall the end of Nod so I went back and checked. I was relieved to see that I’d given Paul some peace just as I’ve received some myself. Phew, I thought, because, let me tell you, I was less than kind to the world as a whole.

And so I sit here this morning. I live in my old home, Rossland, British Columbia. We live in the mountains and right now, as in so many places, a giant fire is only six miles from outside our front doors. With the wrong gust of wind our world will burn and descend into chaos. How’s that for yet another similarity with Nod?

This massive fire burns as I type away this moment, with cancer and Nod right beside me. The city council has told us all to be ready to run. If the winds change all 3,000 of us may have to run. But it’s okay. Love will save us all, even if our houses burn to the ground.

Adrian Barnes was born in Blackpool, England but moved to Canada in 1969. He teaches English at Selkirk College, British Columbia. He is married with two children. He received an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and Nod is his first published novel.

About NOD: Dawn breaks over Vancouver and no-one in the world has slept the night before, or almost no-one. A few people, perhaps one in ten thousand can still sleep, and they've all shared the same golden dream. A handful of children still sleep as well, but what they’re dreaming remains a mystery. After six days of absolute sleep deprivation, psychosis will set in. After four weeks, the body will die. In the interim, panic ensues and a bizarre new world arises in which those previously on the fringes of society take the lead. One couple experience a lifetime in a week as he continues to sleep, she begins to disintegrate before him, and the new world swallows the old one whole...