I recently saw Paul Cox’s film The Life and Death of Van Gogh, and during my reading around the director I came across his memoir Tales From The Cancer Ward.

In February 2009, Cox first developed symptoms that quickly led to a diagnosis of liver cancer, for which the only possible hope of cure was a liver transplant. Tales From The Cancer Ward is a diary-like account of Cox’s experience of his illness and of living a waiting life on a transplant list.

The initial part of the memoir was written retrospectively. Cox then recorded events and his thoughts as they happened:

‘There might not be a final page, but I can’t let all this happen to me without doing something constructive.’

He also used the new world in which he found himself as an opportunity for self-exploration:

‘I have been trying to unwind the clock, to find the very core of my being. To find out who I really am.’

Cox is a shrewd observer of himself, and of others. When speaking of the medical consultation at the time of diagnosis he comments:

‘There was no eye contact, which worried me more than all the potential bad news.’

I have mentioned before how serious illness can sometimes heighten, even enhance, the experience of living, as reported for example by Dennis Potter and Philip Gould. Cox had a similar experience, as if ‘another dimension has been added.’ From his ‘newly acquired vulnerability and raw emotional state’ he began to respond to others differently, and became much more responsive to their kindness. He also acknowledges the importance of love in his life:

‘I’m still here because I probably started to love more.’

Cancer, once diagnosed, is always there and present:

‘It has become my constant companion.’

‘It’s hard to escape the thought of cancer and that creeping sense of loss.’

He struggled with the side effects of chemotherapy and, like Christopher Hitchens, wondered at the time if the treatment was in fact worth it:

‘I become convinced that if you have to live like this to keep yourself alive, it’s better to have no treatment.’

Of one medical encounter Cox comments:

‘He is not as knowledgeable as the experts but more human.

It’s humanity, warmth and tenderness I need more than expert advice at this point.’

Yet, humanity does not necessarily involve tears:

‘As I say to others who tend to cry over me – your tears are of no use to me.’

Tales From The Cancer Ward is about more than illness. It is also a political book, and Cox shares many of his passionate and strongly held views. He believes, for example, that ‘artists must protest’, as he is convinced that they have within them the power to change the world.

For Cox, ‘Life isn’t merely for living, but what we live for.’ For Cox too, this purpose lies through art. He quotes Oscar Wilde:

‘When I get out of prison, the only people I would to be with are artists and people who have suffered. Those who know what beauty is and those who know what sorrow is.’

He speaks openly of fear, the fear of losing his life, and of the force that makes us cling to life, and our refusal to accept mortality.

I thought of a poem I recently came across, Life by Dennis O’Driscoll:

‘Life gives

us something

to live for:

we will do

whatever it takes

to make it last.’

Tales From The Cancer Ward also contains many of Cox’s dreams, which he reports in some detail. For him, dreaming is ‘the most powerful religion of them all.’

Cox’s memoir depicts the author’s personal attempt find out who he is, to get to the core of himself, in the midst of crisis, as well as a seeing and contemplating of what he has personally learnt as he tries to create a reality out of the unreality that surrounds him.

Post transplant, and well, his final words are:

‘Life is beautiful’