Cancer, crime and turning 50 - author Helen Cadbury on the year which changed her life forever

York crime writer Helen Cadbury.
York crime writer Helen Cadbury.
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To say the last year has been one of great highs and deep lows for Helen Cadbury is no exaggeration. The York writer talks to Julian Cole.

If a year can be put in a paragraph, here’s how 2015 shaped up for York crime writer Helen Cadbury. “I turned 50, published two books, sold my TV rights and had breast cancer. So you could say it was a really big year.” Last summer wheels were beginning to turn and life looked good for Helen – busy and good, non-stop busy sometimes, but definitely good. Then capricious fate offered her shiny rewards with one hand and stole her health with the other.

When her second crime novel, Bones in the Nest, was published in August everything seemed positive. To Catch a Rabbit, a joint winner of the Northern Crime Award 2012, had been reissued in January 2015 by Allison & Busby, and was making a stir second time round.

When Helen launched Bones in the Nest at Waterstones in York, she seemed relaxed and confident, joking that the hairdresser might have overdone the “big hair”.

Did she know then that she was ill?

“I’d gone to the doctor’s the previous Friday with a breast lump but I’d had a lot of false alarms before,” says Helen. “I wasn’t really worried. I was delighted to be launching a second book, and it came as a bit of a shock.”

At the time of the interview, Helen, who is married and has two sons, has just completed the middle of a chemotherapy cycle. She is wearing a beanie hat, her head having been shaved by her 18-year-old son after her hair began to fall out. He shaved his own head too, as did her husband, to raise funds for Breast Cancer Care.

“The main thing I’m dealing with is fatigue – and it’s a different kind of fatigue on different days,” says Helen. Her last chemotherapy treatment will be this month, and after that she will move on to radiotherapy.

In the middle of her treatment, Red Planet Pictures, the production company behind the BBC1 crime series Death in Paradise, bought the screen rights to her two novels. The working title for the TV production is Chasebridge, the name of the estate where the books are partly set.

So these are intense times for Helen – the growth of her literary life and the possibility of a TV series are for now balanced against her treatment and its side-effects.

At the moment she feels as if she is living two lives. The books are getting along without her, steaming off ahead in an analogy she uses to describe her situation. “It’s a bit like a ship sailing on, a cruise ship that’s fully lit and the band’s playing, and that’s what’s happening with the books.

“The Yorkshire Post picked To Catch a Rabbit as one of the 13 books that best defined Yorkshire since the millennium. The TV deal’s come through, new readers are discovering my books – the books have been going really well. But I’m not on the boat. I’m in the water, swimming along. I’m getting there, I’m not drowning. I’m pleased that the boat is sailing along without me, but I’m looking forward to getting back on the boat and enjoying the party.”

Friends tell Helen she seems to be staying positive. In considering her attitude, she points to the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. “Sacks was facing a terminal diagnosis, which I’m hopefully not at this point, and he said: ‘It’s not about the dying, it’s about the living’. And that makes complete sense to me.

“I’ve been told that I have a treatable and curable form of cancer. While that’s not without further risk, that’s enough for me to be optimistic.”

Not all sufferers cope in the same way. “Everybody’s experience of cancer treatment is different and it’s definitely much easier to stay positive if you’re not being sick. And I’m very fortunate in that I haven’t had a lot of sickness.”

There are positives in being ill, having time to herself, slowing down and taking stock of what’s important in life, reading and listening to audio books, and no more rushing around.

“To really value the simple things like being able to go for a walk, spending time with people you really love, and fortunately I haven’t gone off my food so I can enjoy nice healthy meals.”

Helen’s two novels are set in Doncaster and York, and feature Sean Denton, who is a young working-class PCSO in the first book, and has begun to climb the police career ladder in the second. She is writing a third Sean Denton novel, as yet without a title, but progress is slow. “The fatigue affects the speed of how I think. I try to write every day but sometimes that’s only 20 minutes, so finishing the third book is much slower than I thought.”

The Doncaster estate at the heart of the novels is fictional – an amalgam of real Yorkshire places. “If it’s based on anything it’s based on a mixture of places that I’ve worked in Sheffield, bits of Doncaster, Hull and an estate where my husband used to work in Leeds. The point about Chasebridge is that it’s an estate that could exist on the outskirts of any Northern town or city.”

Although Helen writes crime novels, and relishes the genre, she also feels her books have other sides. In Bones in the Nest, the title of which comes from the discovery of a devastated nest, there is a theme about needing to belong.

“I think the book is actually about families and belonging, and there is something incredibly sad about finding the skeleton of a baby bird in a nest. I think in both my books there’s a lot about families.”

Both as a writer, and as a woman with cancer, Helen likes to walk. “I’m finding that walking is important to my recovery. I try and walk every day. I’ve just joined a Nordic walking group for breast cancer patients. And walking’s incredibly useful for writing. My brain seems to loosen up and ideas come to the surface.”

Some settings in Bones in the Nest are drawn from Helen’s walks around the streets where she lives. While walking she was struck by the fact that you could see York Minster from everywhere in the city.

“I kept noticing that I’d come round the end of a street and could still see the Minster: it seemed to be watching you and the windows were like eyes.”

Her character, Chloe, is new to the city. Fresh out of prison, she is anxious and feels under scrutiny, and is nervous about being spotted and linked to the crime she committed. “So the idea of being watched by the Minster itself was quite interesting.”

Helen is thrilled by the possibility of seeing her books on television, and is happy to hand over the writing duties.

“I’ll have a light-touch involvement early on, meeting the writer – but I’m confident someone who understands their own trade as a screenwriter is much more qualified to adapt the books than I would be.

“I’ve written for the stage too and I know that what the actors and director bring to a work can be different and may be pleasantly surprising. But I am very excited about it. It’s like seeing your children leave and set up home without you.”

Helen has much to look forward to once her health has recovered, but she’d rather you didn’t call her brave. “I don’t consider myself to be brave, because I didn’t choose to have cancer.”

Much to her surprise, she has also found succour from an unlikely source, a book on mindfulness, which pointed her towards a state of “radical acceptance”.

“You’re accepting what’s happening to you, you’re noticing everything around you and you become much more conscious of everything around you,” says Helen. “But it’s not rolling over and putting your head under the duvet.”

And, finally, she recalls how the broadcaster Danny Baker put it when he had cancer. “He said ‘I’m not fighting a battle, my body is the battleground’. And I think that’s absolutely right.”