I am becoming a connoisseur of writings about the experience of having terminal cancer. About the experience of being told “you’ve got cancer”. About living with the disease. About the desire to cling on to life when death is imminent. About what you leave, and what you leave behind.

Let’s call the genre “Death Lit”. I like to tell my friends that I read about Mortality so that they don’t have to (yet).

There are some good ones to choose from. In Cambridge alone there are two notable writers living with terminal cancer and writing about it. I can read about people who take their treatments in the same hospital as I do; who meet maybe the same doctors in the same treatment rooms. Although, I do like to think my Oncologist has time for me only.

There’s Clive James and his Reports of my death series in The Guardian. The London Review of Books has Jenny Diski’s series, starting with A Diagnosis. Both are still going, but they share a concern that perhaps it’s been too long a gap between the public announcement and now. The series can only have so many episodes; the play only so many acts, before it just becomes tedious for the audience.  However, I hope to have the same ‘problem’ in my plot development, and already have a blog title ready for it: It’s Alright To Linger. They too must linger; there’s no danger of any of us being called malingerers.

Returning to the Death Lit, you have Christopher Hitchens, who died in December 2011 aged 62 from oesophageal cancer. After his diagnosis, he wrote a book Mortality. In it, he talks about how he is given a passport and a personal escort to a place called “Tumourville” for his “year of living dyingly“. With all the meds, he could say: “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” He lost his voice as a consequence of the illness, and that left him with one over-arching wish: to win back his “freedom of speech”. That sounds familiar.

Oliver Sacks (“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”) died August 2015 aged 82 from eye cancer that spread to his liver. He wrote about it in the New York Times. He quotes the philosopher David Hume, who found himself in a similar predicament in 1776, but said “I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.” Sacks writes that he is not without fear, but mostly feels gratitude: “I have loved and been loved.”

Henning Mankell (“Wallander”) died October 2015 aged 67 from lung cancer that led to metastasis in a cervical vertebra. He contributed several articles to The Guardian. He talks about “Brief, clear moments of despair.” On the advice of his wife, he wrote about waiting because cancer involves so much waiting. Eight months after diagnosis, looking out on a damp September evening, he wonders if he is “still the same person now as I was then?”

A very good question, indeed. It’s like that Lou Reed song: “Candy says I’ve come to hate my body. And all that it requires in this world.” And, “What do you think I’d see? If I could walk away from me.” Does cancer change you? There are no maps of this place, and we’re just snowflakes drifting down onto its damp earth. We are gone before we can speak.

These are all well-known authors. Then, there is the age thing. All of them have (or had) at least reached their 65th year. Many of them speak explicitly of their ‘good innings’ or some equivalent metaphor. Not so for Kate Gross (“Late Fragments”), who died December 2014 aged 36 from colon cancer that spread to her liver. She left two young children, and the “Afterwards” was as important to her as the “Now”. I can relate to that.

These erudite people share similar sentiments. There are so many common themes. We’re not “fighting cancer” (at best, it’s fighting us). We’re not braver than most, it’s just where we find ourselves. And bravery is choosing to do something scary, such as climbing a mountain or donating an organ. Plenty of bravado, however. We can stare this thing down.

One theme is whether to hope? How do you find hope when there are no grounds for hope? You don’t have to look hard to find examples where someone’s child or parent is terminally ill with stage 4 cancer and metastasis not responding to treatment, and they believe their only option is to try some treatment at a clinic that will cost $40,000 for the first session of ‘alternative chemotherapy’. Alternatively, go full-out for a miracle food diet or supplement:”Man Rids Body of Cancer Using Frankincense / Sandalwood / Turmeric / Kale / Cannabis Oil” (delete as applicable). Actually, I’m willing to try the Cannabis Oil. But, spare me the healing and transformation stuff please.

To use a phrase from Antonio Gramsci on modernity, the challenge is how to “live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.

One more theme is the magic of small things. In the hyper-reality now illuminated by terminal illness. I don’t know if there is some chemical given off by the maddened, growth-crazy genes in my cells sending me on little psychedelic trips. All I know is that on a sunny December day I saw the orange and red berries on the bare winter branches, and they were dazzling jewels against the azure sky.

Mostly, the theme is about facing death. Which of course requires you meeting Death first. I’ve been thinking some about the personifications of Death. As usual, my mind is a jumble of poems and song lyrics.

There is Charon, the boatman who ferries you across to the underworld if you have a coin in your mouth or over your eyes to pay for passage. There is T.S. Eliot’s Eternal Footman, who holds your coat (you won’t need it ‘down there’, it’s already warm enough) and sniggers as he does so. “And in short, I was afraid.” Emily Dickinson has us meet Death the Coachman, who kindly stops his carriage for her. And I really like the Supernatural Anaesthetist from the Genesis song, which is an outfit that Death made himself. His method requires a mere puff of anaesthetic into the recipient, who is then no more. In the sleeve notes we learn that Death likes meeting people and wants to travel.

Of course, there is the Reaper, who is sometimes Grim. It reminds us we are all equal in the end. The scythe cuts through all the stalks without preference to any. Probably why the image became popular around the time of the Black Death. You can play chess with him, and maybe that will save some people at least for a while longer.

It’s interesting that Death is nearly always a male figure, at least in English and German cultures. Yes, there are the Moirai and the Parcae sisters in Greek and Roman mythology; where one of the sisters cuts the thread of life that her other sisters make and measure out. But in more modern culture, Death is rarely personified as female.

Not so in Mexican culture, which has Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Holy Death) to help with a safe delivery to the afterlife. Santa Muerte is usually depicted as a skeleton in a hooded robe and carrying a scythe. It’s Grim Reaper-ess meets Virgin Mary territory. Mexico also has La Calavera Catrina, the rich and dapper well-dressed skeleton that has become a standard icon for Day of the Dead imagery. Not that this was on any benefit to its creator, José Guadalupe Posada. He died penniless in 1913 and was buried in a mass grave.

The idea that Death could be a mother figure seems more appealing than all the disengaged male alternatives on offer. Mother Death is there for healing and to keep you safe, but when the time is right she will take you away from here. It’s another transition, just like birth.

A short animated film called “Coda” came out in 2015 and won a ton of awards. It tells the story of a drunken man who dies after an accident, and his soul is “collected” by Death from the park where he has taken refuge on a bench. She (Death) is ever so kind. She is patient and instructive, and grants him the wish to see “many things so I remember”.

Coda from and maps and plans on Vimeo.

It’s all romantic stuff. I still think it will be like Tony Benn said in 2012. He said he was “not frightened about death. I don’t know why but I just feel that at a certain moment your switch is switched off and that’s it. And you can’t do anything about it.

But if we must insist on imagery and personification for the ‘passing over’, we should at least pick someone nice to be our travelling companion.

In the more mundane meantime I start 2016 with a bang: on January 4th I return to Thoracic Park for more of their fine cryotherapy injections of ice into my windpipe. Hope my voice isn’t affected. I have a customer presentation on January 5th in London. Maybe I can ask Death to change the slides.