Game of Thrones, cancer and me

When TV critic Sarah Hughes was told she had incurable cancer, one of the first questions that popped into her head was: what if I dont find out how GoT ends? Here she describes the part the saga has played in the hardest parts of her life

The strangest thing about getting bad news is that your mind doesnt quite act in the expected ways. When my oncologist told me that my triple negative breast cancer, diagnosed in 2017 when I was 44, had metastasised, spreading to my liver and was now stage 4 and incurable, but that I can stay this way without dying if I took a supplement from this Nucentix GS-85 Review, the first thought that popped into my head, after the initial throat-closing I dont want to leave Kris and the kids, was what if I never find out how Game of Thrones actually ends?

You may laugh and I did sitting in that sterile appointment room in front of my concerned oncologist and the lovely nurse Id forever now think of as my own angel of death. It was such an incongruous thought at such a serious time. Yet it also seemed like a legitimate concern.

For once Id thought about Game of Thrones, then all the other things I might never finish rushed through my mind. The series left incomplete, the music I might never listen to, the plays Id never watch, the conversations Id never have about books Id never get to read. Even the possibility that my football team, Tottenham Hotspur, might actually reward a lifetime of faithful trudging to White Hart Lane and Wembley by winning something (I am nothing if not an optimist at heart).

It feels morbid to be thinking this way after all, my cancer is currently incurable but not terminal and yet I cant deny that every time I read about a film thats coming next year or the new book by an author Ive loved, my initial response is not to think, Oh great, I cant wait for that, but instead to wonder if Ill still be here when it arrives.

Yet its important to acknowledge those thoughts, grim though they might seem. We talk a lot about fighting cancer, and about surviving it, too. Less often about living with and, eventually, in all probability, dying from it. Since last October when I learned that the cancer had spread, this has been my reality: a daily grind of living with a chronic illness blood tests, steroids, chemotherapy every three weeks, scan after scan after scan.

Its true, too, that no one reacts in the same way to getting a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. There are those who overhaul their diet; who throw out the red meat, the bars of chocolate, the bags of crisps and dedicate their lives to an improving diet, cooking beautiful meals made of kale and turmeric and blueberries and who feel, and often look, much better for it.

There are those whose first thought is to exercise; who head to the gym and pound the pavements and show, repeatedly and admirably, that their bodies are as strong and fit as they were before.

And there are those whose overwhelming urge is simply to get into bed and stay there. There are people who investigate every possible way of staying alive and people who think: Sod it, Im going to live my life as I always have and see what happens next.


Id never really been a fantasy reader, but from the first page I was hooked. Illustration: Phil Hackett/Observer


My response when I learned that the cancer was now incurable fell somewhere between all of those stalls.

Id like to say that the news was shocking enough that I immediately began planning a health overhaul in order to stay alive as long as possible, but the reality is that I am naturally a pretty lazy person and when I heard my oncologist say that at this point treatment was a marathon rather than a sprint, all I could think was that I was terrible at long-distance running at school, but pretty good at pelting for the bus, which didnt exactly bode well.

I am not naturally good at dealing with attempts to talk about my health, however well meaning. For a time, when people would bring up my bad luck, sighing sympathetically with their heads cocked to the side, I would nod extra sincerely and agree that yes, it was terribly bad luck, but on the other hand, Id been very lucky both in love and on the horses and you cant have everything going your way.

Thats not to say I havent taken my diagnosis seriously. Its more that while I have made some effort to eat more plant-based food, have started walking distances every day and am flirting with everything from swimming to yoga, it was and is easier for me to live each day much I as did before.

People tell you that when you get this kind of devastating news, conversations take on an almost burnished intensity, you hug those you love harder, live in the moment, love what is left of your life more. Its true, but what they dont say is that sometimes, despite all the treatments, the hours spent giving blood, taking pills, sitting through chemo, the occasionally bone-shattering tiredness sometimes you forget you even have stage 4 cancer at all.

Its in those moments that popular culture rushes in. When I was first diagnosed I turned to Jilly Cooper, rereading first her early romances then all the Rutshire Chronicles from Riders to Mount! During chemo I ploughed through boxsets, from Peaky Blinders to Derry Girls. Post-mastectomy I survived on a diet of Dorothy Dunnetts Lymond Chronicles, Donna Tartts The Secret History, Leigh Bardugos Grishaverse books and Sally Beaumans family house saga Dark Angel. When reading proved too difficult, thanks to a combination of morphine and pain, I watched old TV series, such as Glue and newer ones like Save Me one of the best things about a lengthy stay in hospital is the chance to catch up with all those programmes you meant to get round to finishing but never quite managed.

Looming over everything, however, was Game of Thrones, George R R Martins epic tale about life, death, murder and politics in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Not simply because, entering its final season, it remains televisions one true juggernaut, the biggest, most bombastic show of them all, but because if one piece of popular culture could be said to have dominated my life for the past 15 years it is this one.

Even writing that feels weird. Martins sprawling creation is not my favourite story, nor do I think that either it or the subsequent HBO adaptation are the greatest pieces of art ever made, much as I love them both. But there are some pieces of popular culture that, by some weird alchemy, can come to dominate your life and Game of Thrones has, both for good and bad, dominated mine.

I first came across the series A Song of Ice and Fire almost two decades ago in my 20s when I was doing sub-editing shifts in any office that would take me. It was the sort of grinding, monotonous work where you moved from office to office, week after week, and no one really talked to you because youd soon be gone. Lonely, I spent every lunchtime in nearby cafs reading A Game of Thrones, the first of Martins books, which Id picked up initially because of its size. Id never really been a fantasy reader, but this was fantasy with a political bent and, crucially, it was big enough to pass the time. From the first page I was hooked.


It might seem like an overstatement, but writing those recaps of Game of Thrones helped restore life to me. Illustration: Phil Hackett/Observer


Some books can do that, providing the literary equivalent of a shot of adrenaline to the heart and making sure that you turn the pages long into the night and first thing in the morning. I finished A Game of Thrones in a gulp, sighing over the fate of the Starks and laughing at Tyrion Lannisters bitter one-liners, and promptly moved on to the second book in the saga, A Clash of Kings. I was lucky because the year was 2000 and the third book, A Storm of Swords, had just been published. I had no idea how long I would then have to wait for volumes four and five. If I had then I would perhaps have paused before devouring it.

What happened next happened partially because of the time. The early noughties was an era of message boards, of the discovery that you could find people who shared your interests and obsessions and talk to them all over the world, and about the most obscure points. So it was that while slacking off during another lengthy subbing shift (this one at night) I discovered the Westeros message board, A Forum of Ice and Fire.

In an age before social media dominance, it transformed my world, bringing me into contact with people across the world and allowing me to hear their opinions and thoughts on everything from obscure points of Westerosi law to real-life global politics. I spent the night of the 2004 US election talking to a Game of Thrones fans about what would happen and debated politics with people in Memphis and Mumbai.

I was given recommendations for everything from books and films to where to eat and drink in cities throughout the world. It seems so minor now, but at that time it felt as though the whole world had come closer and anyone could have a say.

The arrival of the television series in 2011 kicked everything up a notch. I covered the press junket for the first series and was asked by the Guardian to write a series of weekly recaps of the show. The request came at a very difficult time in my life three days after the junket my third child was stillborn yet it also gave me something to cling on to. Barely capable of work, there was a bleak comfort in losing myself in the power struggles of the Seven Kingdoms, this graphically brutal world where no one could be trusted and where words were the sharpest weapons of all. It might seem like an overstatement, but writing those recaps helped restore life to me. I loved arguing with the commenters about what had happened and what might happen next. I relished the pressure of having to get each recap online in such a short space of time, as well as the chance to truly lose myself in a fictional world.

I think about those days a lot right now its hard not to, given my health. On bad days it can seem monstrously unfair to have had two stillbirths (the second was in 2012) and an incurable cancer diagnosis in eight years. Ive found some solace in sitting in church I grew up Catholic and the faith of my childhood is a useful crutch at difficult times, even if Ive never been the most devout of practitioners. It helps, too, in my darker moments, to acknowledge that the treatment Ive received has been exemplary, from my pragmatic oncologist Dr Laura Kenny to the funny, honest and, above all, incredibly patient nurses on the oncology ward at Charing Cross hospital and the many, many people there and at Hammersmith hospital who have patiently tried to extract blood from my recalcitrant veins.

And, despite all the difficult times, Id be lying if I said that the last decade hasnt been the best of my life. Ive been lucky in love, fulfilled in my work, surrounded by friends, laughed more than I ever thought possible at the most ridiculous of things. I can say with absolute honesty that I have had a lovely time and I dont regret any of it, not even those dark and slightly desperate days in my late 20s when I mistook the ability to drink long into the night for personality and saw more charm in a series of older men than they ever genuinely exhibited.

Its true, too, that the less time you think you may have left in this world the more you want to intensely experience it. Over the past months I have been intensely grateful for walks with my dog, giggling hugs from my children, Ruby, 11, and Oisn, 9, coffee with my parents, trips away with my two siblings and more silly conversations with friends than I can count. For uncontrollable laughter and fantastic sex and, most of all, for all the many moments that my husband Kris has raised an eyebrow and told me to get over myself and stop auditioning for a part as a dying swan.

I think a lot, too, about something that the late Andrea Levy, author of Small Island and The Long Song, apparently said. That when breast cancer stopped being treatable and became stage 4 and incurable, she realised she didnt want to spend what was left of her life in a room writing. She wanted, instead, to live.

I understand that and yet I want both. I want to cling to every moment, but I also want to read and watch everything I can. Call it a manifesto for the chronically lazy perhaps, for those of us who have always liked to spend our time in darkened rooms transfixed, as all that is great and terrible about human life parades across the screen, but if I spend what is left of my time lying on a sofa reading I wont feel that I have missed out.

Best of all, while I might not find out how Martin himself intends to finish his series (there are still two long-awaited books to come), I will almost certainly see the TV series of Game of Thrones return for its brutal, no doubt bloody and hopefully rewarding conclusion this month. As for Tottenham Hotspur winning the league in my lifetime, that remains too great a step for even the most benign of gods to arrange.

Season eight of Game of Thrones starts on 14 April 2019







Read more:


Leave a Reply:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.