‘I need to get on with life now’

Wendy Bray has fought cancer twice and shared her experience through her award-winning book In The Palm of God’s Hand. She talks to Catherine Butcher about the difficulties of moving on

How do you describe yourself? Is your identity defined by what you do, what you look like or your character? Wendy Bray is an award-winning freelance writer, a confident conference speaker, and a successful newspaper columnist based in Plymouth, Devon. Slim – through no longer the size 10 she once was - blonde and happily married to Richard, Mum to two well-adjusted teenagers; she is a valued member of her local church and enjoys strong friendships in her home town of Plymouth and further afield.

But Wendy is learning that her true identity is not defined by success, ability or other people’s opinions, but by her relationship with Jesus – though, to her disappointment, many would simply describe her as “that woman who had cancer”.

Wendy Bray has survived cancer; she wants to move on and leave illness behind her - to develop a cancer-free identity. However, like many who suffer from serious illness, she frequently finds herself defined by a disease she’d rather leave behind.

Like all of us, Wendy’s identity has been shaped by much more than one or two key episodes in life: childhood in Kent when a “fabulous run of Sunday school teachers” taught her about Jesus and the Bible; teenage years when she made a personal commitment to Christ at an Ashburnham Christian Centre church weekend; university in Norwich where she studied English and education – but also developed new skills as part of the university Christian Union; a first teaching job in Cornwall where she met her mother-in-law-to-be at church; marriage to Richard; motherhood and debilitating post-natal depression after the birth of Benjamin when his older sister Lois was still a toddler; membership of Mutley Baptist Church where she found “good friends to laugh, cry and pray with . . . laughter has often saved me from a dive into the destructive depths of self-pity”; work as a staff writer with Care for the Family working on the Parentalk parenting course and with Rob Parsons on his bestselling titles What Every Kid… and The Sixty Minute Mother; Richard’s redundancy, which led to his new job commuting weekly to London to work as an accountant for Cancer Research UK; life as a ‘weekend wife’; training as a Life Coach; . . . and also cancer: twice.

The effect of cancer can’t be minimised. Wendy was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1999 and documented her first year of cancer treatment in a diary, later published by BRF. In the Palm of God’s Hand is a graphic, gloss-free, often-humorous account of the indignity, pain, doubts and fears associated with cancer and chemotherapy. It was awarded Biography of the Year by the Christian Book Promotion Trust in 2002.

Wendy survived an arduous journey with her first cancer and, in Spring 2005 with the treatment behind her, her consultant said she would be “very unlucky indeed” if the lymphoma came back. But two months later, she found a breast lump – a second, unrelated primary cancer. Again, Wendy recorded her journey through cancer treatment; this more recent part of her diary is now published in an up-dated edition of her book.

“Sharing a diary like this is about more than baring your soul,” she says. “It’s like taking your clothes off in public in mid-January and asking passers-by to throw snowballs at you. Not something you would do unless you hoped an awful lot of good would come of it.”

It was that hope which prompted her to publish the book. Wendy has been writing a diary since she was four. When she was going through her first bout of cancer treatment, Fiona Castle – who lost her husband through cancer in 1994 – and Jill Worth, editor of the Mothers Union magazine Home & Family, asked to read what she was writing.
Fiona and Jill then suggested that Wendy published the diary as a book. Initially baulking at the prospect, Wendy relented when Fiona asked, “When you were first diagnosed, would a book like this have made a difference?”

The book has reached people and parts Wendy never expected it to. One reader, who recorded his reaction on the Amazon web site, said: “I found out about Wendy's book 'by accident', but am so glad I did - I had a similar cancer diagnosed in April 2002. In the bewildering period of starting chemotherapy, one's whole life (and family life) completely changes. There is so much to learn about treatment and side-effects, and Wendy does a fantastic job in telling the reader how it is, honestly and sensitively . . . a wonderful encouragement that cancer is not a dead end, but a journey that can become a rare spiritual experience of Christ's love and care.”

Grateful to be alive, Wendy now wants to move on, but she is discovering that moving beyond a cancer-defined life is not easy. Tough times shared build strong bonds. “You don’t mess around with things that don’t matter,” Wendy says. “The ‘fellowship of suffering’ is very special”, she adds, “but, sometimes painfully excludes even closest family-members, who can never quite empathise with their suffering loved-one.”

And survivor-guilt is also very real, Wendy says. “I’ve lost lots of friends and inevitably ask ‘Why them; why not me?’” Survivor-guilt also makes her impatient at times, Wendy admits: “I want things to happen now. Next year might be too late. We’ve all got friends who have died and that brings a pressure to make the most of life; a feeling that you must get on with stuff.” This aspect of survivor-guilt means Wendy is keen to discover what God wants her to do next – there’s a pressure to make life count.

“So often we cancer survivors are treated as if we have as slightly lower IQ than everyone else; or as if we just want to eat broccoli all day; or are all weak and woolly. But we’ve been through a lot and we want to apply the experience and wisdom that we feel we’ve picked up.”

Wendy is determined to find the good in what she’s been through. She’s written a Handbook for Cancer Survivors, still awaiting a publisher, as “We don’t ‘get’ cancer survivorship in the UK yet.”

Her experience has given her a fresh perspective. “Facing death helps us to live life,” she says. “Many survivors of cancer or any life trauma discover that survivorship can transform the ordinary and give them something unique to bring to life, work and relationships.”

Being a wordsmith means she is alert to the images used in connection with cancer: fighting imagery, which communicates a subliminal message “ . . .if you die and ‘lose the battle’ it’s your fault for not fighting hard enough.

“On a good day, I’m just getting on with the life I feel privileged to have and wonder what that means. Why has my life been saved, effectively, twice? Has God got something he wants me to do? On a bad day,” Wendy acknowledges “I feel run over by a steamroller. I can be very angry; angry at the waste of time. So many months disappeared into nothingness, when I was so ill.”

But even in the bleakest times, through the treatment, Wendy felt aware that she was safe ‘In the Palm of God’s Hand’. “I had a close experience with God, while I was ill, and it’s difficult to adjust when I’m not experiencing God in the same way. There have been times when I’ve said, ‘Don’t you want to know me when I’ve not got cancer, God?’,” as if, even God uses the disease to define her.

In these silent times, it is her identity as God’s daughter which Wendy uses to interpret the experience. She brings to mind the picture of a father teaching his daughter to ride her bike: at first he runs along beside her and holds the back of the saddle tightly through the wobbles, but gradually he lets go and allows his daughter to ride alone . . . even if she falls, he’s there to pick her up and set her on her way again. Sometimes it seems as if she’s alone, but she’s never out of reach of his loving hand.