Greek Author Sophia Nikolaidou chronicles her own experience with cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer, in women worldwide.
Twelve percent of all new cancer cases and 25 percent of all cancers involve this type of cancer. The annual breast cancer death toll is 521000 women though the American Cancer Society reports 89.7 percent of women survive for five years after diagnosis, regardless of the stage or subtype.
One such survivor is Sophia Nikolaidou, 48, well-known and prolific Greek author and writer of the book “Καλά και σήμερα. Το χρονικό του καρκίνου στο δικό μου στήθος” (transl. “So far so good. My breast cancer chronicle”). The title is literal: the author chronicles her own experience with cancer. Nikolaidou was diagnosed with breast cancer on the 22nd of September 2014. She went about writing the book on the same day, “her medicine and treatment,” as she describes in its preface.
Continnect met Sophia Nikolaidou for an interview in Thessaloniki last November. The author talked about life with and after cancer, the process of writing an autobiographical book, and how she managed to overpower cancer by means of her pen (original interview was translated in English by Stav Dimitropoulos).
continnect: Are you completely cancer-free now?
SN: Anyone who has been through cancer knows. Cancer ejects the word “completely” from your vocabulary. This is the reality of cancer. You live day by day, not mulling over the future. This is both a blessing and a curse. Curse because each time cancer check-ups inch toward, you get into a dither. Blessing because each moment acquires a unique value, and joy is not postponed for tomorrow. And yes, for the next ten years I will undergo hormonal therapy—my cancer is hormone-dependent. A pill a day and, perhaps, a few more nerves rubbed raw (she smiles).
continnect: What are the logistics of a life after cancer strikes?
SN: There’s the post-surgery reality first. I had a mastectomy, which was a shock for my body. It takes time to recover and return to your previous physical state. To function normally, free from the fear that you’re abusing your body. The best bit of advice I‘ve ever received came from a doctor on that very first day: “Sophia, you don’t need to pain. The information we wanted to gain, we got if from the biopsy. If you pain, ask for a painkiller.” I’m still grateful to him.
Then, of course, there’s the reality of the person still undergoing chemotherapy. This lasts much more and is more complicated. In chemotherapy the doctor grabs a napalm and hurls it at your body. Everything burns en masse. True, the human body can withstand everything (you can’t imagine what it can withstand). You take one step away from the dark, you begin a long trudge back to the light. And once you’ve witnessed the bottomless darkness of chemotherapy, the light thereafter is dazzling. I’ll confess something that might sound trivial.
At least I could’ve thought so before falling ill. During chemo, your hair, eyebrows, lashes fall out. You might wonder, ok, your life’s at stake, and you’re repining about that? Still. Because the idol in the mirror… it’s not you. Until your hair falls out altogether, nobody gives a second look in the street. Walk hairless, and you need camouflage. Because you’re now carrying the taint of the disease. It’s like somebody scribed the word cancer on your forehead with a blade. Silly as it may sound, during my chemotherapy days, I would seek out the prettiest, trendiest clothes to wear and visit the clinic. During those days, a pencil drawing beautiful eyebrows was enough to brighten my day.
continnect: What sparked the beginning of your written cancer chronicle?
SN: I’ m an author. Faced with cancer, I did what I knew best. I stood up to cancer, overpowered it with words and edged forward. You know, the daily life of a cancer patient is regulated by drugs and doctors. Journaling, every day, taking down in the heat of the moment the events, the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, I tried—I believe in hindsight—to retain a semblance of normality amidst chaos. Maybe writing was some kind of spunk against the disease.
Maybe it was an analgesic. What I can confidently say is that I jumped on writing the book the day I was diagnosed with cancer and called it a day after my last chemo. Sure, fiction is good, as a matter of fact all my previous books were fiction and collections of short stories, but words won’t let the sun shine in when the body ails. This was a major question for me, when I fell ill. And, you know, words didn’t betray me. This book is my most personal book, hands down. Because I‘ve written it with my body.
continnect: Can you tell us more about this book? How has it resonated with your readers?
SN: There are always readers who love you dearly and contact you zestfully. This specific book, however, as it is not fiction but blatant truth, has offered me precious moments. In a presentation in Patras, for example, a nurse that had taken sick stood up and exclaimed: “For me Sophia is my Sophia. She wrote the book that kept me in forward motion! When my oncologist tried to explain the symptoms of the next stage, I told him ‘Don’t worry, I have a friend who’s already explained everything to me!”
Or while walking down the road in Crete, I was approached by a lady who said: “In God’s name, I can’t call you Mrs. Nikolaidou I’ve read your book, for me you are Sophia.” And so much more, from adults, from children, all of which I savor. The same goes for every letter I received. Let’s say that the book bore fruit (she smiles). Not only for the people who fell ill. This is the reality of being human. Life isn’t always fair. We crumble, we pick our pieces, we move on. This is the book.
continnect: What is the message you want to communicate to people who surround cancer patients?
SN: That we don’t need compassion. The patient does not need compassion, or pity or sorrow. Quite the opposite. What we need is practical help. Help with the house chores, a ride by car, a smile. Before cancer visited me, I thought I was there for friends who were battling it. Little did I know. I was inflicted, like most of us, by the arrogance of the healthy person. Only then did I understand that a visit or a phone call are fine, but nowhere near as vital as helping you vacuum your house or taking your kid out for a walk when you’re enfeebled.
continnect: How do you view death—and life now?
SN: Everyone is confronted with death one way or another. What we lose is this childhood sense of immortality. What we win is a deeper reflection on life and reality.
I’ll describe you a scene, which I draw from my book. It unfolds during chemo. We’ve gone on a family excursion to Holomontas. I can barely stand on my feet, we were climbing up the mountain. It’s Sunday midday, we’re returning inside the car. My husband is driving, I on the co-driver’s seat, my son on the back seat—he was 11 then. Dad and son are frolicking around and giggling—you know the goofy things boys do together. Suddenly, I leave my body—am sure you’ve felt that too, those moments we disconnect from life—and I feel like I’m hanging above them, watching them. I think to myself: they’ll be great together. If something happens to me, they’ll get through. I ponder it sweetly, peacefully. It dawns on me that everything’s so perfectly in order. And then I think: Alas, I want to live more!
Stav Dimitropoulos is a journalist and writer who has appeared on CBC, CBS Radio and FOX Channel, and has written for In The Fray, YourTango, Gadgette and many more. Facebook | Twitter: @TheyCallMeStav