The Story Within: Cancer

Christine Breen, debut author of Her Name is Rose, shares a touching story on when the truth is stranger, and more difficult, than fiction. Much her novel hinges on her protagonist’s cancer scare, but several months before its publication, on World Cancer Day, she received her own diagnosis. (This article first appeared in Book Keeping, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.) 


Four years ago I had an idea for a novel. A what if story. It was an idea I’d thought about many times during the years of raising my children. It came and went like the seasons in the west of Ireland where I live as an expat American. It came and went for years, largely because I didn’t have faith in myself as a writer. But one day the idea needed an expression beyond its mulling around inside me.

What if a mother with an only child, an adopted daughter, were faced with a cancer scare? What if the mother were even facing death? How would she protect her daughter from abandonment? What would she do? Would she search for her daughter’s birth mother? That was the genesis of my novel. Tom Wolfe wrote in Advice to Writers, “The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”

Was it plausible that my character, whom I named Iris Bowen, could be a widow? As a friend said recently, Shit happens. So yes Iris could be a widow as well as an adoptive mother. And, was it credible that Iris could have a breast cancer scare? Certainly. She was the right age and fell into the category of not having had her own children and not having breast-fed, and, she had already suffered a great grief. As Mark Twain wrote, “…Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities: Truth isn’t.” Truth? I am an adoptive mother but with two children not one. Another truth? Like my character I had a breast cancer scare resulting from a mammogram that was fuzzy and shadowy but turned out to be an ‘architectural distortion’, a not uncommon thing in women of my age. Final truth? I love my daughter very much—if what if should ever come to pass I would leave no stone unturned to make sure she was not left alone. Writers draw on facts when writing fiction but to serve the narrative the facts must change. Unlike Iris’s situation, whose husband Luke was a lawyer and had passed away from pancreatic cancer before the story begins, my husband, author of eight novels, is alive and very well and one of the world’s great fathers.

I wrote Her Name is Rose to give voice to a mother’s love, my love, even though according to the definition I am not a natural mother. I wanted to give voice to the version of adoption where adoption is another way of being in the world and isn’t always a story of continual longing for a real mother. In my narrative, the natural father is a character, too, although the story doesn’t turn out as the reader might expect.

And neither is this story—this what if story of my life where I write a novel that features cancer as well as adoption— turning out as I expected. Here’s where fact becomes stranger than fiction. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I wrote to my excellent editor, Hope Dellon, at St Martin’s Press to say, “If I wrote a story about a character who was facing a cancer scare and then found out that she really had cancer and she found this out on World Cancer Day, would it be credible?” Hope replied, “If that happened in a novel, I would say it was too melodramatic to be believed. But oh, I do wish it were in a novel rather than in real life.”

Did my novel’s cancer theme foreshadow a major life event? I was in London to attend the inaugural Debut Novelists 40 + Club Luncheon on 22 of January of this year. Her Name is Rose, my debut novel, was being published two days after I turned 61 in mid-April. I didn’t make the luncheon. My wonderful son, who is doing a Masters in Law at the London School of Economics, brought me to the Emergency Room at London’s Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead at 5:30 that morning. I was in agony with abdominal pain and had been up all night. He stayed with me, holding my hand, until my husband Niall arrived from Ireland ten hours later. I had surgery to remove a bowel tumor four days after being admitted. Five days after that I was back in Primrose Hill recovering and awaiting results of the biopsy. The diagnosis for colon cancer finally arrived on World Cancer Day.

I am back in Ireland and undergoing 12 cycles of chemotherapy. For a writer who spent four years turning the plot I feel the plot is turning me. So where does writing help? Now? It helps in the telling of the story. My story. And as I write these words I know the story doesn’t end here. Spring is here. My novel is on shelves in bookstores in America. I will now get there to see them. And I hope readers will too and together we can believe in the power of telling stories, real and imagined. And know that we don’t know the ending until we arrive there…

8 Comments

  1. Caud mille failte from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. My friend, Yvette, is 82 and I sometimes get her library books to read. I am always pleased when she really enjoys a book. Today she raved about your book ‘Her Name is Rose’, couldn’t believe it was a first book and ‘if I knew how to use my computer and get to her site, I would write and tell her how great it was!’ So I am doing that for her before I start to read the book myself. I see it is about a mother’s love and Yvette knows all about that. She had nine children, only one of them a girl. She lost her oldest, a boy, when he was five (a brain tumour) and another son when he was 22 (hit by a car). She has had personal experience with bowel cancer and when I told her you were going through chemo for colon cancer, she said ‘Well, when you wrote her a note, tell her not to worry – I had the same thing in 2002 – and I’m still here!’ So thank you for a wonderful book, may the angels protect you and give you strength and please let us know about any more of your books.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to pen such a thoughtful comment. Please convey my best wishes to Yvette, and thank her for the encouragement!

  3. I have truly loved each word of Her Name is Rose. Every since reading your books about your life in Clare over 10 years ago, I have felt a kinship with you and your family. The words you and your husband have penned thru the years are truly little gifts, in that your readers feel a connection that is almost of a spiritual nature….to both your selves and your lives. I wish you boundless blessings and peace as you continue to recover from your own ordeal. I also, am a mother and a breast cancer survivor, and although our stories are very different, the prayers in my heart for your health and peace are made with great fervor. Thank you for opening your life to readers for so many years, and for giving voice to the beauty and blessing of ordinary life lived with love & passion.

  4. This was a very well written book. I have read all your non fiction books regarding your family and they have been beautifully written. This book , ” Her name of Rose was hard to put down ” It always kept one in suspense. I too am an adoptive parent. My son is from Columbia, he is now 27 and I have a daughter who is biological. I read your earliest books while going through the adoption process. Christine I wish you the best and good luck with your next books. I live in Connecticut but am from Rockland County

  5. Dear Christine,
    What a marvel the internet is. I read your four books about living in Ireland after hearing you and Niall (or maybe just one of you) on the Diane Rehm show many years ago. I corresponded with you by mail (how old school), and visited your home and art gallery in 1981. I have two of your paintings on my walls at home. I’ve been a little busy since 1981 raising a family, losing my husband in 2000 and keeping the family farm going. I am delighted that my curiosity lead me to your website. It is so nice that you continue to share your life with your fans. As one of the notes to you mentioned, those of us who read your books feel a connection to you. I look forward to reading your book and some of Niall’s as well. All my best to you.

  6. Dear Christine,

    I enjoyed reading your novel, Her Name Is Rose, as well as the 4 books you wrote with your husband. I am an Irish- American from Long Island, married to a Dubliner who adopted a girl. We now live on Long Island, but when I first started dating my husband in 2001, I went to Cahersiveen and found the house my great grandfather emmigrated from. I wasn’t tempted to buy it though! Good luck with your writing and I look forward to reading your next one.

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