The Light in the Darkness is a must-have companion for anyone living with a serious illness, or caring for a loved one with such an illness. With this collection of reflections and personal essays, Jo St Leon shares her experiences, her darkest moments and her greatest joys. She tells of the journey from fear and denial to acceptance and a determination to live her best life. She shares her deepest thoughts and feelings, always with her characteristic blend of wry humour and wisdom. The Light in the Darkness is the book Jo wishes she could have found when she first received her cancer diagnosis.
Cancer is supposed to change everything—sufferers are supposed to devote their lives to their condition, and thanks to both their illness and their treatment, they are supposed to feel terrible. This has not been my experience at all. Since diagnosis I have felt progressively better apart from one serious, slightly alarming episode. Much of the time I don’t actually feel ill at all. For now, I am contented and have a good quality of life. Friends remind me that in the eleven years before I was diagnosed, I really did suffer—but somehow it feels as though if I could put up with it and carry on working it can’t have been that bad.
Cancer is not a competition, and one person’s experience does not invalidate another’s. What is important is not comparison but sharing discoveries and learning. I have tried in these pages to become a friend to those who are walking a similarly scary path. And cancer is always scary.
Regardless of whether your prognosis is terminal or curable, you will have to carve out a new normal for yourself. Trying to carry on exactly as usual, as I did, masking fear with humour and trivialising the concern of others, is a form of denial. After all, it was some form of the old normal that helped get us into this mess.
Cancer is shit. Always. But it does bring blessings in its shitty wake. If you are reading this book, you likely have cancer yourself or have someone close to you who does. By sharing my path with you, I hope you might occasionally say, ‘Oh yes!’ or ‘Oh, that really is a thing!’ Although my level of well-being is mostly good, I have dealt with all the fears that come with more ‘normal’ cancers—the fears of death, of what will happen if I can’t work, or look after myself, or take care of my cats. These fears are very real and can haunt a person’s waking and sleeping hours. I must remind myself sometimes that Sézary is by no means a fraudulent or insignificant cancer; there will likely be suffering aplenty in my future. My temporary status as a medical miracle does not rob me of my voice.
This is not a How to Overcome Cancer book. There are so many of them out there written by people who are way more knowledgeable than I. I have great faith in my medical professionals, but I don’t leave it all to them. I need to take some responsibility for my own wellbeing. At the outset, I experimented with many things, and I have learned that one person cannot possibly do them all. Self-care is important, but for me it was and is important to maintain some semblance of a quality life as well. Whatever choices I have made in this regard are mine alone. I am not recommending or prescribing them. Everyone’s choices will be different.
Tell us a bit about yourself
Until a year or so ago, I would have called myself a musician and teacher whose hobby was writing. Publishing my first book, and writing for a few publications on a regular basis—and even getting paid for it sometimes— has slowly changed all that, and I now call myself a writer. A few weeks ago I took the huge step of deciding to retire completely from my life as an orchestral musician. I haven’t yet had the courage to sell both my violas, but I’m sure that will come. I’m revelling in the joy of not having to practise!
I’m a single woman of a certain age, I live with my two cats , and I truly love the life I have created for myself. After a 3-decade career as an orchestral musician in London, I have returned to my native Australia, and live in a little house in Hobart, in the foothills of Mt.Wellington (Kunanyi).
What do you do when you’re not writing?
As a person who lives with cancer—hopefully on an ongoing basis—self-care is important. I swim, spend time at the rehab gym to build my strength, and do yoga. It’s not just the physical practices of yoga that interest me, it’s all the branches of yoga—I find myself delving ever deeper into the philosophies, ethics, and self-realisation aspects of this ancient discipline. Aside from all that, I love reading, cooking, and hanging out with my two cats. I’m trying to resist turning into the mad cat lady who lives on the hill.
What was your favourite book as a child?
There were so many! We didn’t have a television, and I had a fairly dysfunctional family life, so I escaped into books as often as possible. I loved the Narnia books, the Wind in the Willows, and all Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books. I longed for the worlds created by the authors, and I longed to be the characters—they were so brave and adventurous, and were all blessed with the companionship that I so lacked.
What book do you wish you had written?
As an adult, I’m a huge fan of crime fiction, and still the books I love most are the ones that create worlds I can escape into. So I wish that I had written the Bruno, Chief of Police series, by Martin Walker. Bruno is the most adorable cooking policeman who I am totally in love with, and I would love to live in his fictional town of St.Denis in all its rural French glory. I also wish I’d written Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, simply for the towering immensity of his imagination.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book?
Well, the next one is completely different. Its working title is Conversations with Robin Wilson. Robin is one of Australia’s foremost violin pedagogues. He has an incredible array of truly outstanding students, both past and present. I was listening to one of his students one day, and decided that someone should write a book about him. Then I decided it should be me. I’m writing it in conversation form to preserve as much of his voice as possible. I’m about a third of the way through now, and I’m hugely enjoying the process. We’ve got the to-ing and fro-ing aspect down to a fine art. It’s a book with a specialised audience, but I hope it’ll be interesting and useful to string teachers all over the world. Robin’s international reputation is growing, so this is more than a pipe-dream.
What was your favourite part of your book to write, and why?
I loved writing The Hair Correspondence. It was just fun: it made the whole process of having cancer and losing my hair far less traumatic. Although it did have its moments of insight, it was mostly a light-hearted look at myself and my past—even its darkest moments.
What sort of writing environment do you create? Music or not? Pen and paper or laptop?
I have somewhat surprised myself with this one. I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of technology, but I have now discovered how much I value my iPad. I work straight onto it on a tiny little table sitting in my window, so when I temporarily pause I can look at the trees. I write morning pages by hand though—there is a special magic in pen and paper. I have a very beautiful pen and I love quality notebooks. Definitely no music! Like most musicians/ex-musicians, I love silence.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Just thank you! For reading, for giving such wonderful feedback, and for generally reassuring me that this is a book that will be of benefit to many. Thank you!
In what situation is your self-esteem most at risk?
Any situation that requires me to be athletic. When it comes to sport, I’m really best at watching.
What do you like best about yourself?
I like the person I have become after all the searching and angst I went through as a young woman. I have settled happily into my skin as a quiet, contemplative self with an ever-present sense of humour. I can finally say that I enjoy being me.
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Jo St Leon is a musician and writer living in Hobart, Tasmania. Receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2016 prompted her to transition from being a full-time musician who loved to write to being a full-time writer who loves to sometimes play the viola. She shares her house with two very pampered felines. She loves reading, cooking, swimming and yoga.
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