Dear Cancer, Love Victoria: An Exclusive Introduction by Victoria Derbyshire
A BAFTA award-winning journalist and broadcaster, Victoria Derbyshire has been keeping a diary since she was nine years old. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, her diary became a way of documenting her experiences. Today sees the publication of Dear Cancer, Love Victoria. Based on a year of diary entries, it is a frank, open and honest chronicle of Derbyshire’s diagnosis and treatment in real time. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, she explains what keeping a diary has meant to her and why she wanted to share her experience with readers.
I’ve been writing a diary since I was nine years old. It was a Christmas present – a pale blue Letts Walt Disney diary with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on the front. Entries through the months of 1978 included, on 23 January, ‘I wrote to Swap Shop’; on 24 January, ‘I posted the letter to Swap Shop’. What a week for a little girl growing up in Lancashire.
After documenting my primary school life on and off for those twelve months, it became a ritual – receive a diary for Christmas, start writing it on 1 January and keep going till the year ended.
The Eighties feature mostly the boys I fancied, the clothes I wore, the gigs I went to (Wham, U2, Depeche Mode, Culture Club). And I just… kept on keeping one, although obviously the subject matter changed over the years. I have 39 in total, taking up space in my wardrobe – tidily though – a record, however imperfectly kept, of things I’ve done, emotions I’ve experienced. It makes me smile that when describing falling in love with someone I’ve had to add extra sheets of paper to the bottom of the page and Sellotaped them in, in order to capture every delicious detail of who said what to whom, and how I was feeling. And if I hadn’t have recorded them, there are insignificant details I’d inevitably have forgotten – going to see Wham in 1983, I note that Andrew Ridgley’s hair ‘looked ace’. That’s daft as well as excruciating.
I suppose you could say writing a journal has helped me process my life – not only the challenges, but the joyful times too. When I scribble down the events of my day or week, I feel calmer somehow, my mind cleared of ‘stuff’. It helps organise my thoughts, work out a plan if I need to work out a plan and forces me to make sense of my feelings.
Yet I never, ever expected to record in one of my diaries that I’d been diagnosed with a serious illness.
This is my entry for Thursday 30 July 2015:
‘I am completely distracted, but I know what’s coming. I know I have breast cancer’.
And this on Friday 31 July 2015:
‘We went to see the GP at 1.30pm. I knew what she was going to say and she did: it is malignant.’
Scribbling those words in black pen was brutal, devastating. Writing it down was confirmation that it really was happening to me. Suddenly this habit of diary keeping I’d begun as a child became much more important to me.
During the months of tests, biopsies, scans, surgery and chemotherapy that followed, my journal became vital: the act of writing a solace, in a way that it hadn’t been before. A place where, for the first time, it felt it mattered to record the facts, the emotions, because cancer matters – to you as the diagnosed, to your partner, children, mum, brother, sister, best friends. It’s irrelevant that I documented what I wore on a Friday night out in 1983; but it did matter that I record my cancer hadn’t spread to my brain despite some dizzying spells.
Dear Cancer, Love Victoria is based on my diaries from the summer of 2015 to the summer of 2016, documented in real time as events unfolded. When I read the entries back for the first time I cried, because I’d forgotten or blanked out some of the details. Everything is in there – the impact of the diagnosis, how we told our children, how I coped with the sometimes gruelling treatment, the distressing hair loss, my regret at cancelling our life insurance months before – everything, including some swearing, and quite a bit of drinking rosé wine.
It’s daunting to have something so personal published; I worry about the reaction. But that’s outweighed by my desire to speak openly and boldly about cancer to anyone who will listen. Although two and a half million people in the UK live with cancer, the experience is still too often talked about in hushed tones and awkward clichés. It’s in the hope that my story helps demystify the reality, that I’m sharing the diary of my diagnosis and treatment with you.