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“How cancer helped me embrace the real power of vulnerability”

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Genevieve Fox
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Orphaned from the age of nine, writer Genevieve Fox has always been fiercely independent. However, a diagnosis of head and neck cancer saw her leaning on her family and friends - and learning the power of being truly vulnerable.

I’ve never been one for weakness, or worrying. You know how it is. I’ve always stuck to a motto of: keep calm, carry on and whatever you do, don’t look back or even think about flunking or failing.

We’ve all got our reasons for staying strong, regardless, but I put my steeliness down to my rackety childhood.

It started off shiny enough. I was born in New York, where I lived with my parents and older brother and sister. One of my feel-good photographs from those halcyon years is of me, perched on a counter at a magazine party when I was three, dressed in a velvet dress, a tiara on my head, a grown-up’s discarded bottle of champagne beside me. I am grinning at the camera, as well I might. Life was a cracker.

Two years later, my American father died suddenly and my English mother whisked me and my sister, six, and my brother, 10, to England to start a new life. My mother was the centre of my world. I took everything about her, from her love for us to her love of cocktails and a good sing-song, for granted.

Then she went and died too, from cancer, when she was 42 and I was nine.

On paper, there were plenty of contenders to look after me, my sister and my brother. In reality, none of them were up to it. 

Genevieve Fox (centre) with her brother and sister in New York

There was my mother’s twin sister, but she drank too much and had an odious husband. My father had banned him from our American home, although I’m never quite sure why. My English grandmother was too old. There was my mother’s handsome gentleman friend, whom she told me she had married, though later someone else told me that was a lie. We all lived together in a house in Sussex before her death, and I loved him. But after my mother died, I never saw him again. We had a guardian, our father’s 27-year-old son from his first marriage, but he was unable to look after us himself and instead arranged for a woman called Tamsin to take over. We didn’t get on, and that’s an understatement.

I spent a lot of time after my mother’s death either meeting, or staying with, strangers, including Tamsin’s family. Naturally shy, I tried to blend in, and I did anything I could to keep the spotlight off me, the awkward orphan, the misfit, the outsider. The shyness made me look weak, and brought that unwelcome spotlight back on me. In the absence of a mother’s wings to protect me, I worked through the shyness, and the dread of spending time with yet more people I had never met before who would judge me, the flimsy, fearful orphan. Year by year, I grew stronger; I learned to bend with the wind.

Tamsin left after three years and we moved to London, where three different women came to look after us. The last one left when I was 15.

Being an orphan and living independently, as I did thereafter, gives a child great coping skills, along with heaps of self-reliance and resilience. If you want something, you find a way to get it. If you want to do well, you work for it. You have nothing to fall back on, so you don’t fall. Everything is about control.

Fast-forward 40 years and a diagnosis of head and neck cancer ripped all of that control out from under me. All of a sudden I couldn’t plan, I couldn’t control my recovery, and I couldn’t even eat at one stage. I became weak, and the weakness made me weepy. But I wasn’t used to asking for help – you don’t, when there’s no-one to ask. I wasn’t used to complaining, or sharing my fears with my friends, either. As a private person, I’ve always been a good listener, but a bad sharer. You can tell me your problems, but I won’t tell you mine.

Genevieve’s mother, Thelma, photographed in 1959

In short, nothing in my life prepared me for the sense of vulnerability that cancer brought in its wake. It was a complete mind-melt. Not only could I not protect my own sons, then aged 12 and 14, but I struggled to hide how ill I was or how I frightened I was that I would be lost to my boys, as my mother was to me.

Then one day, I realised I didn’t need to hide how I felt, and it’s no coincidence that this realisation dawned on me when I was at my most isolated and dependent. My friends had already been looking after my husband, myself and the boys with a rota of Meals on Heels. Now, when close friends asked me how I was, I told them the truth. When they offered to come with me to chemotherapy, I said, “yes please”. 

For me, this vulnerability and dependence on others was a wake-up call. It triggered life-changing levels of empathy and compassion. Instead of recoiling from fellow cancer sufferers, as I did following my diagnosis, I felt profound sadness; I connected with them and recognised that I was one of them. I saw, for the first time ever, that it is OK to be weak. Being vulnerable is part of what it is to be human, and no-one thinks lesser of you as a result. That, to me, was a revelation.

It meant that when I was at my weakest, post-radiotherapy, I actually rang up my friends and asked for help. I put my trust in them. And you know what? The trust pulled off. My girlfriends said, it’s no wonder you’re in a heap, get anti-depressants. They bought silk pillowcases too, and Crème de la Mer for my blistered neck, and cashmere scarves, and more besides.

Being vulnerable gave me the courage to ask for help, and that, in turn, was an invaluable part of the healing process. I wouldn’t wish vulnerability on anyone, but I would say, if it comes your way, give into the power of it. 

Vulnerability connects you to others; it is as protective as a ring of fire.

Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Genevieve Fox is published by Square Peg. Get your copy here.

Images: iStock / Courtesy of Genevieve Fox