Kate Figes: ‘Cancer felt like being hit by a train — now I want my life back’
From cannabis oil to oxygen therapy: author Kate Figes will try anything to stay alive
March 1 2018, 12:01am, The Times
Her friends were urging her to write it anyway, but for the author Kate Figes a book about midlife was an obvious next project. For more than two decades the journalist and novelist had written highly successful non-fiction books that navigated the course of women’s lives, about equality in the workplace, new motherhood, later motherhood (The Terrible Teens), adultery and, conversely, how to get love to last (Couples). Now, as she approached 60, she felt she had found a more personal subject, yet one with a wide potential audience: how in late middle age to make sense of the past to face the future.
Then, suddenly, On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions, which is published this week, became about something else: not midlife, but, very likely, the end of life. Just before her 59th birthday in September 2016, Figes was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Her oncologist — charming and charismatic, but nothing if not direct — told her it was “treatable, not curable”.
Her descent to “Planet Cancer” began with the arrival of a miniature wire-haired dachshund called Zeus. He was the family’s new pet, a squealing bundle, but not, for her, of joy. Instead he brought anxiety and exhaustion. Perhaps there had been an omen, a hint, of something wrong a year earlier, when as a family mediator she was suddenly overwhelmed by memories of her parents’ break-up and her powerlessness as a child to heal it. She realised, in an oncological metaphor, that “divorce had entered every cell of my being”. She needed an urgent break from the work she had always enjoyed as complementary to her journalism.
Her physical symptoms, when they came, were muscle pains round her ribs and back. Although she had had regular mammograms, none of them indicating a lump or change in the breast tissue, a bone-marrow test eventually revealed triple negative breast cancer, its most aggressive variation.
Triple negative cancer is so called because the three most common engines of cancer growth are not present in the tumour. That sounds good, but it means that common treatments such as hormone therapy and drugs are useless. The good news was that there would be no need for surgery and the cancer was not in any of the five vital organs. The bad was that it had entered her bones, the best she could hope for was to keep it there and there was no cure.
“I was in a lot of pain because I had three fractured ribs from the cancer,” she says as we talk in the sitting room of her terraced family house in north London. She is small and, despite all the treatment, a young 60 with hair, familiar from book jackets, that’s dark and shoulder-length.
“It had gone straight to the bones and was just eating away at them. The oncologist said I lit up like a Christmas tree when I was first scanned: cancer all over my ribs and back. So at the beginning it was the combination of the pain, the chemo and the shock. I kept thinking, ‘If I could just not have the pain I might be able to cope with the chemo and with the shock. Or if I didn’t have the chemo, I might be able to . . .’ All three was overwhelming, like being hit by a train.”
It was not only chemotherapy — ten capecitabine pills every day — that she endured. Every three weeks a nurse came to administer a 30-minute drip of Avastin to prevent the cancer from creating its own blood supply. Initially, it sent her blood pressure spiralling, so she took another drug to bring it down. Before the nurse left she jabbed Figes’s stomach with a bone-strengthening drug, Denosumab. Meanwhile, every day she took eight tramadol and eight paracetamol to contain the pain sufficiently so that she could move.
The pharmaceutical onslaught left her curled up on the sofa nursing a death wish not quite strong enough for her to act on (although she had sufficient morphine in the house).
“I was always determined to fight it. I remember thinking, ‘I just want my life back. I don’t need anything else.’ I mean there was a moment with the first cycle with the chemotherapy . . . They tend to give you the highest dose they think you can cope with because you need to really whack the cancer hard to begin with. That first cycle, with the pain, I did think, ‘If this is what it’s going to be like, then actually I would rather die.’ ”
She refers me to a book by an American surgeon called Bernie Siegel called Love, Medicine and Miracles in which he divides cancer patients into three groups. One group, between 10 and 15 per cent, have lives so unhappy that they give up. A large chunk in the middle, 60 to 70 per cent, just follow doctors’ orders. “And then there’s the 10 to 15 per cent he calls exceptional patients, who do their research, who ask questions. He says they’re the ones who do better on the treatments and tend to live the longest.”
Figes, firmly of the exceptional gang, made cancer her new journalistic assignment. A health journalist friend advised her to contact Patricia Peat, a former chemo nurse who believed that chemotherapy and radiotherapy patients who used complimentary methods tended to cope better and live longer. Peat recommended that as soon as she was mobile again Figes should seek out oxygen therapy.
So a year ago her husband, Christopher Wyld, a former BBC journalist and director of the Foreign Press Association, who retired to spend more time with Figes when she became ill, began driving her to outer London where, between a Screwfix and a Photomart, the multiple sclerosis charity MS Action runs an oxygen centre. Here Figes regularly sits in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a large metal dome that, complete with portholes, simulates a deep-sea dive. The theory is that with reduced pressure, blood vessels expand and oxygen is more easily absorbed into the body. Her health began to improve. Christoph, as she calls her husband, has become a volunteer at the centre.
The oxygenation was only part of her self-medication. There was heat therapy, giving up sugar and taking up vitamin supplements. Her oncologist was uncensorious, but cautious. “B12 is good for neuropathy too,” he told her, but under his breath added: “But it won’t do any good.”
She was caught between extremists. Those who thought chemotherapy a scam promoted by Big Pharma, and a medical establishment that refused to recommend anything not based on peer-reviewed trials. Peat told her that if she stayed off the sugar and kept pummelling her cells with oxygen and heat, the cancer would not come back. The oncologist said it would, eventually. Just once, he conceded to her face that for some people it did not — but no one knew why.
Now a third of Figes’s day is taken up with “anti-cancer activity”, beginning with a 90-minute morning regimen of yoga, meditation, body oils, supplements and juicing. And then it’s dope last thing in the evening? I ask this because I have seen in her kitchen the paraphernalia that (illegally — as if she cares) extracts cannabis oil.
“You may laugh, Andrew, but it is a really powerful medicine. A couple of drops and you’re out. I mean, basically, the policy I’m pursuing is anything that is said to kill cancer cells I do as much as possible. Green tea, broccoli sprouts, heat and oxygen. You see, nobody knows.”
Is it a bit like advertising: 50 per cent of it is useless, but you never know which 50 per cent? “Exactly. What do you give up? So rather than give up, don’t change it.”
And something is working. She has just had her fourth clear scan in a row. She looks well. She is no longer on painkillers, although her ribs and back ache when she does too much. Since the diagnosis she has shrunk from size 14 to size 8, not from the cancer, but because the chemo prevents the gut from absorbing nutrition.
Yet within this tough account of her cancer — reading it made me feel as if I were ill myself — is the book she originally wanted to write, the one about coming to peace with her childhood. Until later in life Kate had a fractured relationship with her mother, Eva Figes, a leading feminist novelist who died six years ago. Eva’s marriage had ended when Kate was five. Kate left the family home when she was 17, after a “blazing row”. Eva was a German-Jewish refugee who lost her grandparents in the Holocaust. “Holocaust damage ran through my family,” she writes and you can almost discern, in invisible ink, the words “like cancer”.
“As I began to get better, I looked back at what I’d written and I realised it was still about midlife because what cancer does is crystallise all the same anxieties and losses and griefs.” I say it seemed to give her an insight into her mother’s unhappiness. “She did a lot of good with her life, but I think she was very unhappy. I do think the Holocaust runs through families and perverts and distorts relationships.”
A year ago she and her brother, the historian Orlando Figes, became German citizens in a ceremony at the German embassy. For Orlando it was because he did not want to be a “Brexit Brit”. For Kate it was another way of “drawing a line under the past”.
She has no praise high enough for Christoph, to whom she has been married for 30 years, nor for her two grown-up daughters, although one, forgivably, broke down just before the first post-diagnosis Christmas, fearing that it might be her mother’s last. Figes wrote the book, she says, mainly because she wanted them to know who their mother really was. Friends have been incredible, but they too needed to weather the shock. One burst into tears before her. “I wanted to tell her to get a grip. ‘I don’t need to see you upset, I need you to be loving and kind.’ ”
She makes only short-term plans, regards every two months free from chemotherapy as a bonus and works on the assumption that it is unlikely to matter much that her pension is weedy. Whereas for years she saw her job as helping others, she is unashamedly putting herself first. What she has learnt, she says, is the power of love. “I never knew I was this loved by so many people around me. It was a very wonderful feeling.”
A gift then, but a costly one, I suggest soapily. She turns on me. “Not a gift! I don’t know why people call cancer a gift. A box of chocolates is a gift. It’s not a gift. It’s more that whatever happens, you have always to go to the good. Only by going to the good, seeing the positive stuff in what has happened to you, can you then cope with the negative.”
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions is published by Virago; £14.99