I’m not really sure how to write this post in memory of the novelist and poet, Helen Cadbury, but I want to say something about such a special soul who impacted my life for the better in the short time I knew her, and reflect a little on what she showed me.
I had Helen on Facebook for ages before we actually had a proper chat. In September 2015 when I was coming towards the end of my treatment, a mutual friend, who’d also had cancer, told me Helen had breast cancer. I decided to take the chance to reach out and offer support. Helen was warm and optimistic. We had a long phone chat about the ins and outs of treatment and what to expect. There’s often an instant connection between people who know cancer. As my friend Catherine puts it, it’s a ‘they just know’ thing.
I visited Helen a few times during her treatment and we spent the afternoons chewing the fat and talking about our life journeys so far, what had brought us to this point in our lives and what might be next while facing an uncertain future. I was inspired by Helen’s journey as a writer. How, like me, she took the long way round and had been a teacher and creative jack of all trades for many years. Her first novel, To Catch a Rabbit, was published in 2013 in her late 40s and she was on a roll. I marvelled at the huge intricate storyboard in her office plotting the evolution of PC Denton. Helen talked about getting back into poetry when she could find time. We were both aware, more than ever, of how finite time is. A positive aspect of a primary breast cancer diagnosis (if you can call it that) is the clarity that can come from it, the upped urgency to get on with what matters and this focus can sometimes help with navigating the decisions that used to be harder to make.
Helen and I found we’d had a similar diagnosis in that our tumours were both 5cm across our breasts and had only been found from it pushing on other parts of our breast tissue and causing a knock-on change. We both had cancer spread to our lymph nodes hence the need for us to have chemo and all the nodes cleared from our arm. We both lost a breast and endured radiation burns to our chest wall for 3 solid weeks. Helen lost her hair and I managed to keep half of mine through freezing my head during chemo injections. We gassed and moaned and laughed a lot about whatever seemed worth commenting on relating to treatment – the good and the bad, and everything outside of it. Helen was straight talking and always looking for the positives. She was thankful for everything she had and the treatment she was getting on the NHS. She was generous with advice, perceptive and always philosophical and keen to make sense of things.
Time went on and we were both back to work, keen to be cracking on with what we enjoyed and what mattered to us. A few times we planned to meet up for a Poetry Business writing day in Sheffield but never found the time to sync. I was busy getting Hive up and running and Helen was focused on finishing the third novel in the Shaun Denton Crime Series.
In February I got a Facebook message from Helen gently explaining that the cancer was back and had spread to her liver, spine and lungs. The message was as positive and practical as always. I asked her if I could ring and got annoyed at myself for not holding it together when I said how sorry I was. She was reassuring and laughed about how it was really okay to cry and normal in the face of something ‘a bit shitty’ as she put it.
This is the last time I spoke to Helen outside of Facebook messages. I tried not to crowd her or ask for updates as she embarked on a new course of chemo. I know firsthand how hard that can be, but this, as Helen said when we spoke on the phone, was a ‘different conversation’. She was always considerate of my experience, even when she should have been focusing only on herself. It was a long chat and seemed oddly uplifting for us both.
After talking about how the secondary diagnosis came about, we moved on to what really mattered to Helen – her family and her work. She had just read an interview with Leonard Cohen before he died and she’d got a great deal of comfort from his approach to death. He was all about ‘getting the house in order’ and completing what he could of his unfinished work. And that was Helen’s push and focus now too. Like Leonard Cohen, she wanted to ensure she finished as much work as possible, and got her paperwork and the house in order. ‘If I’m still here in a few years, it will be a bonus I got it sorted then!’ she joked. She talked about her family a lot, about leaving something for her husband, Josh, and their boys. And she also wanted to bring her poetry, written over many years, together into a collection. She had already asked her friend, the poet Carole Bromley, for help looking at what she’d written over the last 12 years.
At that point she said she wasn’t sure how long she’d have but she knew people can live a long time with secondary breast cancer. Helen seemed to be both geared with that in mind, but also with the possibility that it might not happen. Attitude she believed was key. She said she was working on keeping a balance between being rational and realistic about the here and now, and also optimistic and positive in how she faced things. As she always seemed to do, she treated both as a puzzle she must crack to honour the life she knew and the person she was.
We never know how much people say to make us feel and cope better, or live happier, but I suspect Helen was good at being brave for others, and looking back at that phone call, as was her kindness, she also didn’t want me to worry. I felt like I had very little to offer by way of thoughts. All I could point out is from what I could see, in the space of around a week, she had done some serious thinking, planning and decision making and was doing a stellar job of channelling Leonard Cohen, and really needed to acknowledge how brilliant this was and she was, but that it was okay to not do any of this too. She said ‘Oh thank you. You’re so good at reflecting back. I thought I’d just been sat on the sofa for a few days. I think I deserve a day off tomorrow then’. And that’s what I’ll remember most about Helen, she was someone who was always getting on with it, even when she wasn’t. Days before she passed away, I believe she was still scribbling down ideas for books and creative projects. She wanted to achieve and make the most of her life until the end. Without really knowing, she was just as inspiring to others as Leonard Cohen was to her.
Helen’s death, less than 5 months later, and after a period where things looked like they were looking up, has shocked and deeply saddened all who knew and cared about her to the core. For me, it’s a close to home reminder of how, both, lucky and near death I myself have been, and may still be, but also, how like Helen, I want to keep achieving what matters to me for as long as I am able, and I want to keep enjoying the now.
The week before she died, Helen announced her first poetry collection will be published this November by Valley Press. The title, Forever, Now, is a line by poet, Emily Dickinson – Forever – is composed of Nows.
All thoughts and love to Josh, Reuben, Isaac and Helen’s extended family and friends.