Cancer, and the Power of Positive Thinking

Trigger warning: This article contains the use of the F-word. Not so copiously as to be considered an ingredient, more of a condiment. Because why the fuck not?

Here we go:

Catching up yesterday with Phil, an old friend of mine, he said ‘I remain convinced that a positive mental attitude helps defeat the bastard stuff…’

I think he’s right, and it made me wonder exactly why.  I don’t believe I can cure myself of cancer with the power of positive thinking and nothing more. A positive mindset is not that. As the old joke about the man praying to his god for a lottery win ends, with his god saying ‘Meet me half-way, buy a ticket.’, it’s about giving yourself the best chance, and doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done, More importantly, it is still doing it when it is a physical and mental struggle to do so.

I have a three-week chemo cycle. I’ve just started cycle six of ten, so fourteen weeks out of thirty to go.  Well, thirty-one weeks, because this cycle was delayed for a week for reasons of being beaten up by chemo and secondary infections. I hated that week, I hated that delay. So far that week has been one of the mentally hardest weeks of this whole process, of my entire life and I wish I understood exactly why. Nevertheless, like all things, this too has passed. It has moved through me now and is gone.

What happens after my 30 weeks of chemo? I don’t know. Right now I don’t want to know. Some days these thirty weeks seem endless. One thing at a time. Roll on September.

Right now, two days after the chemo day at hospital, a ten and a half hour session, I’m at the peak of my drug regime. It eases off after a week, but right now it is like this.

Drug 1 – Twice a day, exactly twelve hours apart. No food or drink for two hours before or one hour after. (This is for the stage 3 drug trial I’m on.)

Drug 2 – Once a day, an hour before food.

Drug 3 – Twice a day, with food.

Drug 4 – Three times a day. No alcohol. (WTF? I hear you fellow hardened boozers writers say. Yes, people, this is indeed a very hard regime. Fortunately I only take this drug for five days out of fifteen.)

Drug 5 – At bed time.

Drug 6 – Anti-fungal ointment, finger and toe nails, twice a day. because I’ve lost half my fingernails and a few toenails thanks to drug side-effects. Gosh, this can hurt, because the skin under your nails is packed with nerves and the slightest knock is excruciating.

We’ve never seen nails this bad, my doctor said, then fetched three more doctors so they could all have a look. And take pictures.

Drug 7 – Skin ointment, twice a day, to stop the joints on my fingers hardening and splitting and getting infected.

Forty years in IT, I have a spreadsheet.

And not forgetting:

  • the once-a-week pill.
  • the anti-nausea drug I need to take 12, 3, and 1 hour before chemo. (Chemo starts at 3pm, that 3am dose is not my favourite)
  • The four days of injections I give myself from next Monday to boost my neutrophil count – a type of white blood cell – to minimise immune system compromisation.

And then there’s the exercise.

There’s no such thing as cancer. There’s breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and all the others. Each has its own horrors, its specific treatments, and its demands for self-care. For prostate cancer one of the most important self-care regimes is exercise.

Standard prostate cancer treatment is hormone suppression, specifically testosterone. Apart from keeping us men manly, testosterone does useful things for everyone like maintain muscle mass, bone density, and energy levels. Suppress testosterone and all these things fall away relentlessly. Right now I’m nursing a non-healing/slow-healing spontaneous rib fracture.

The answer is exercise, lots of exercise. Weight training, swimming, walking, general cardio. As much as possible, as often as possible. For me this means most weeks I aim for three or four sessions, though I’m trying to swim more because I love it and so for me that exercise is easy. Being a member of the Thrive clinic also helps. This a unique exercise clinic designed for people with prostate cancer. Started and run by physio Emily Curtis, and cancer patient Chris Cottrell, it has helped me enormously.

The thing is, with muscle mass and bone density constantly eroding away, you have to work hard just to stay still. This will never end.

But fatigue is the thing. Some days I can’t get off the couch, some days my legs are made of lead and going up stairs needs a serious haul on the banisters. ‘Come on, you lazy fucker,’ I may be heard to mutter at times like these. Exercise counters the fatigue, but then there’s the fatigue making it so hard to: “Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight. Life is your right.” (Marley)

Half the time I’m amazed I manage to get anything else done in a day. As someone else said, cancer is a full-time job, lazy people need not apply. Neither, in all honesty, should their partners.

Some days I feel I’m not very good at any of this. Some days, some weeks, I fail and I sit there in my failure and think about what to do. This is the point at which Phil’s positive mind set comes in. Get up, stand up, try again, start again. Or not. Some people don’t, they simply can’t. Maybe one day I’ll be one of them. My choice.

So far my choice is that I’m doing my best to be a Weeble[1].

Because when the going gets tough, the tough say, ‘Fucks sake, here we go again.’

Thanks, Phil.

[1] Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.

A Tale from the Kalevala

Issue 7 of ParSec, the SF short story magazine from PS Publishing is now out. It includes my short story, ‘The Naismith and the Wild Boy’.

Some stories from legend are adventures, others are fantastical explanations for natural events and places. Others bring insight into human nature.

Ilmarinen, god, immortal smith, crafter of the dome of the sky, grieves the death of his wife. He is a superlative smith, he can make anything, but is that the path to happiness?

This very human story of loss and sorrow haunted me strongly enough that I felt I needed to write my own take on the tale simply to clear it from my mind. And here it is, my science-fictional variation of ancient legend. My own story, yes, but without the inspiration of Ilmarinen’s own life and lesson it would not exist.

Ian Whates, editor of ParSec, liked ‘Naismith’ enough to take it for the magazine. You can read it here. If you need a little more persuading just look at the contributor list for this issue: Paul Di Filippo, Joanne Harris, Alison Littlewood, Tim Lucas, and more.

This is my second story with ParSec. The first, ‘Down and Out Under the Tannhauser Gate’, was the opening story in issue 1 – what a privilege! I was equally delighted when it was selected for Best of British SF 2021.

Milford SF 2023 Bursaries Announced!

Milford SF Writers are delighted to announce the 2023 bursary results. As a committee member it’s been a real privilege to be part of the bursary selection process, a serious and important process.

This year we had more applicants than ever, and we have invited some of them to re-apply in future years. If you are one of those people and find yourself reading this, please don’t self-reject. We really do want you to apply again.

My thanks also to the great generosity of the individuals and groups who have made the bursaries possible.

If you would like to support the bursaries, and also get your hands on some excellent SFF stories – including a never before published one from Neil Gaiman – then all you need to do is buy a copy of Eclectic Dreams.

This is Milford’s first anthology and we’re very proud of it. All profits going towards the bursary fund.

I 10 Q

A Mysterious Box Found in the Attic

Among all the ephemera from four generations of the my extended family that seems to have ended up in my attic have been some truly interesting, personal, and moving objects. Memories have been recalled, and feelings too. Sometimes I’ve sat and looked and remembered, and wondered too.

I have also found:

– Some ancient and rather crumbly 200ADs.

– Lots of LARP kit, much of it decent. Apart from a costume and item or two we couldn’t bear to part with, this is all now re-homed with a good friend who is still avidly gaming.

– Four suites of mail (or coats of fence, as we used to say). Three are now re-homed. I kept the bronze one.

– Large quantities of small black and white photos of people called Mr Hoskin; Aunt Evelyn; Dorothy in the garden; Malcolm & Joan; Daphne Sumner; Len & Maurice & Stuart Roland & Muriel & Brenda & Cicely & Beryl at the Tower of London; Thelma; Blanche, and more.

Rebecca(L), Judy (T), Amanda(R) Tessa

I have no idea who these people are.

However,  I did find this wonderful picture. What a bunch of scamps! They don’t half look like trouble.

I don’t know who they are either.

And then…



… there was this box. Locked, wooden, about 50 x 30 x 20 cm. I knew this was something dad must have made. It had much of his careful, meticulous style, with a light seasoning of bodge.  (Note the lock fitted upside down.)

I’ve only successfully managed to pick a lock once in my life. Several minutes fiddling with bent hairpins proved this was not going to be the second time. Instead, I took out all the screws securing the front face.

And then I opened it.

What on earth?

A grey machine, and two windy things. At the front, a metal plate in two parts that hinge, lifts, and fold. The left side has a spring-bar.

Behind it all, you’ll see a Bakelite wiring box. I haven’t opened that yet.

That shallow red cardboard case on the right held a couple of clues: a cine film spool, and some instructions for the intricate gray plate mechanism – it’s a film splicing device.

This, I realised, is dad’s Standard 8 editing suite.

Then I noticed the grey machine in the center had a liftable lid. Underneath is a small viewing screen.

With a reel on each hand crank, you can view the film frame by frame, back and forth. When you’ve reached the right spot, cut and splice. Neat.

What do do with it? I’ve many hundreds of feet of old cine film, if not a few thousand. Like this device it’s all 50-70 years old, all filmed on dad’s clockwork camera. If I’m going to do anything with that, it needs cleaning and digitising.

I could try watching it, because in another box I found his cine projector.

Considering the age of the wiring of this editing box, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to plug it in and flip the switch. (Yet.)


Mystery Tech from the Attic

This little instrument (about 7cm long) was an interesting attic find. It took me a while to work out what it is actually for.

Look through the lens beside the numbered wheel and you see a double-image of whatever you are looking at. Rotate the wheel and the images move apart or together.  Move them together, until they overlap and the number on the wheel by the marker shows the distance to the object in feet.

It is an old-school photographic range-finder.

The inside is complex, with a tiny, angled half-silvered (semi-opaque) mirror, springs, and brass fittings. I didn’t dare fully disassemble it even though it needed a good clean.

A nice little piece of precision retro-tech.


I also found this neat little angle-finding brass folding ruler. There’s clearly been a bit of tool abuse at some point – that blank edge looks like it’s been used as a screwdriver.

Again, it took me a while, then I noticed something unusual about this ruler. Can you spot it?


Chemo, Food, and Taste

One of the tiresome things about chemo is what it does to flavours and aromas. For me almost every taste is really dialed down, and many things are flavourless. Texture is a big part of enjoying food, but when that’s all there is, meals can be pretty dull.  Fortunately my appetite is still good but I can easily understand how people who have lost appetite as well as taste could lose all interest in eating. It’s boring.

It’s good to remember that there’s always someone worse off than you. On my trips to hospital it can be obvious. It breaks my heart to see other patients so desperately ill, or young, or both.

Dad – 1941

My father was a WWII army glider pilot. In 1943, during preparations for the invasion of Sicily, his glider did what gliders do, and crashed. He lay in the wreckage in the North African desert through the night until rescue came. With a truly severe head injury, dad survived, losing an eye, and all sense of smell and taste. For the remaining sixty years of his life food had no flavour, flowers had no scent. And yet he told me he thought he’d been lucky – he didn’t get to go to Arnhem.

Another thing he told me was that he could still remember how food tasted, and when he ate, he imagined those flavours. I thought that must be a poor substitute and it was a rotten thing to endure. I remembered his words again yesterday over my evening meal – a lovely sausage casserole, with parsnips, butter beans, carrots, mash, the works. It made me appreciate that while I might have six months of this, he had a whole lifetime. I could cope, I would stop feeling sorry for myself.

While I knew what my casserole should taste like, it was barely there. So I tried imagining the flavours as he said he did. To my amazement, it worked. More than that, it was much less a recalled memory than actual flavours. Just by remembering I could taste so much better.

Flavours only exist as constructs in our minds, like colours and other sensations – all part of the ineffable qualia of experience. Maybe that’s how it works, a summoning up of memory and layering that onto actual experience.

Whatever the reason, it works, it helps, and life is a little better. Thanks, Dad!

Eat My Speculative Shorts!

7pm GMT this Wednesday (1st March) I’ll be taking part in one of the free Glasgow 2024 WorldCon online fringe events.

“Eat my Speculative Shorts” is a panel discussion on that wonderful story form – the short story.

Speculative short fiction is a booming industry… but do we show it the love it deserves? Are short stories a stepping stone for novels or a career in their own right? Is the TikTok generation a boon or a curse for shorts? Do publishers show enough support for shorts?

If this sounds like your thing, come join me with Commonwealth Short Story Award nominated Kenechi Udogu, Utopia Award nominated Ana Sun and James White Award nominated J.W. Allen as we travel through multiverse genres, publishing deserts, independent lands, slush-reading sorcerers, and more. Tickets are free.

It’s going to be a fun, lively, and interesting discussion. Everyone is welcome.

Here’s the event link

Did i mention it’s free?

Short Story News – The Skull!

I was excited to take delivery of #9 of Tales from the Magician’s Skull yesterday. It contains my story, ‘The Glass Dragon’ – in the final slot no less!

There’s a lot to like about Magician’s Skull. It’s a large-format print magazine, each issue is a lovely production, with every story illustrated. And for gamers one or two of the creatures in each tale are worked up as playable monsters. From my story there are glass worms, and the fearsome muck hag – my version of Jenny Greenteeth.

Magician’s Skull has a witty vibe to it – you can tell it’s made with deep affection for the genre (S&S). In a world of genre small press filled with nice people the editor, Howard Andrew Jones, is one of the nicest. He has been hugely supportive of my writing, encouraging me every step of the way.

If you do read the magazine and enjoy my story, you should know there is a sequel. Part two of ‘The Glass Dragon’ is set to appear in forthcoming edition. This is another first for me, and I could not be happier.

The Journey Continues

Earlier this month we went to Milford SFF Conference in Nantle, North Wales –  a week of critiques, writing, hanging out with other writers, and cake. Trigonos, the place we stayed, nestled in the foothills of Snowdonia, is determined we need never go more than three hours without something to eat. Vis:

8 am -Breakfast
11 am – Tea and biscuits
1 pm – Lunch
4 pm – Tea and cake
7 pm – Supper

This year Milford felt special. Perhaps it was because it was my first real big step outside of my lockdown life since Covid and my own illness, but I think the real reason was the company. Of the fourteen people, I already knew some beforehand, Liz, Jim, Dolly, and Jacey, and it was wonderful to see them again after a few years away. There were new people too, including visitors from the USA, and Nigeria. The week passed quickly, I was free to write in the mornings, the critiques took up the afternoons and could be tiring. In the evening we chewed the fat, relaxed, and told stories. Some of them were true. Good days, well-spent.

Everyone has a degree of writing experience (it’s one of the entry rules for Milford that you should have had at least one piece published), and this year the work everyone brought was good and interesting, rich with thought and imagination. That’s not to say everything was perfect. Every piece critiqued was a work in progress, the author often having explicit concerns about plot, pace, character, tension, and so on, or sometimes because they had pushed themselves boldly into unfamiliar writing territory and worried whether it simply worked at all. Everyone was committed to their craft, wanting to improve, open to advice and suggestions, and free with their own ideas.

As always, I came away wanting more, and also re-energised. That energy is consistently Milford’s final gift. On that last day I was sorry to leave, and also glad to head home. There was much I wanted, and needed, to do.

One thing about going away is that it lets you look on your own life from a distance. It occurred to me after I had been home for a few days that life is a multitude of journeys, all happening at once, all taking you along different paths, different directions. Maybe each of those paths is a story, but I haven’t properly thought that idea through. Some of those journeys are our own choice, with others we have little control.

I liked the idea of me out on all those journeys, it felt quite pleasing.

I decided I would no longer be scared of the future.

No Fear. Wish me luck.

Over the Moon!

Each year the British Fantasy Society (BFS) runs an open competition for short stories. Judging is anonymized, which I really like. The SFF community is not small but it is friendly. Conventions pretty much guarantee most people know most people.

To my delight my story And into the Tunnel, the Train placed first. I was, and still am, over the moon about this.

I was especially pleased because And into the Tunnel is such a personal story. I’ve had a lot of life news to process over the past couple of years, and one of the ways I found myself doing this was through my writing. I wrote a second, very different story obliquely around all this and am very happy that one has found a home too.

I won the BFS short story competition back in 2016 with ‘Warm Gun’ so, as I told the judges, it’s time for me to retire and sit on my laurels for this competition.

Like Warm Gun, you’ll be able to read And into the Tunnel in ‘Horizons’, the BFS magazine of fiction, poetry, and art.

(Just to be clear, this competition runs alongside the main BFS Awards for best fantasy and horror novels, best novella, collection, anthology, short story, and much more.)

My congratulations to all the winners of the BFS Awards, and to the writers who placed second and third in the competition (I don’t know who you are yet, forgive me!). Their work will appear in ‘Horizons’ too.