Cherrill Hicks

Cherrill is an experienced journalist who has written for several national titles including The Independent, The Times, The Guardian, and the Telegraph. Now in the first year of a part-time MA, she was diagnosed with cancer in April 2018.  She is currently working on a narrative about her condition, interwoven with family memories.

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If only I’d gone earlier. That’s what I think now. The constant thinking, the regretting – it would drive you mad.

And always, the question – What did I do wrong?

And then, the trying to accept – terrible things happen. It’s just random. 

It’s not my fault.

That call, the Thursday before Easter, 4pm.  Dr Peters, the gastroenterologist, talking very fast about my scan results. Lesions on the liver, quite diffusely scattered around the liver, they’re definitely not, they don’t look like, benign blood vessels. 

Not entirely sure. If only in the liver or worse going on.  Could be something nasty going on – those were her words. Something like cancer going on.

Urgent CT scan to be booked; I’ll be referred to a clinic for suspected cancer patients.

Then at the end, at the end of the call, she said: there’s nothing you can do about it now. Try to relax. 


Was I trembling? Did I break out in a sweat? I think my heart was racing.

I went downstairs, told Patrick straight away. Nothing was sure then but we were frightened enough.  Sitting for a long time, on the sofa. Staring into space. Somehow we ate something. Watched Master Chef:  a way to get through time. 

Our sons. I can’t leave them like this. I want to see them settled, to have found their way in life. 

Will they be orphans? Patrick has to stay well. To survive.

If I am coming to the end, I have business to see to.  Money, pensions, wills.

I wish I’d gone earlier. If only I’d gone earlier.  

The first appointment I’d been given, last November. FFS, I’d booked a cheap flight to Italy the same day. By mistake, but I wasn’t too worried. Even when I heard the next available one was – February. February 6.

Going in November, finding out then, could have made all the difference. 

Good Friday evening, we had to get out. A film – Nick Cave, his concert in Copenhagen, 2017.  I’m a new fan of his work, his dark songs.  Sitting there in the dark, holding hands, half watching, half listening; this terrible new burden.  

And then – somehow, we get to Easter Sunday. It’s grey, biting cold.  No one is around.  We had to do something, to pass the time.  Earlier, before Dr Peters’ call, I’d booked somewhere in Camberwell. ‘Spacious neighbourhood gastropub with modern-vintage vibe.’  Full of young Camberwell types. Designer beards, expensive clothes, skinny cut trousers.

Patrick had the pork, me the beef. The roast potatoes had been waiting around awhile.

We sat there, grimly eating.


So many tests over the next weeks; so many results.  CT scan (result: significant thickening of bowel lining); colonoscopy (result: large growth in the sigmoid rectum, likely malignant); PET scan (result: lesions in lungs and bone).

Final diagnosis, April 26: Advanced colon cancer with metastases. Aggressive. Incurable. Inoperable. The only option palliative chemotherapy. 


Friends: I’m so, so sorry. We’re so sorry. What a cruel shock. 

We’re here for you.

Shocked and saddened to hear your news. 

Anything we can do to help, we will.

You are in our thoughts.

There are no words.

Flowers: pink tulips, blue/purple irises with the bright yellow at the centre. People bring homemade cake, chocolate and walnuts (I’m not allowed), help with the garden.

My brother, in Devon:  I’m on this journey with you. You must take all the treatment they offer. None of this alternative stuff. 

Uncle Bill phones, from Sidmouth. He is 91, has survived bowel cancer. He goes to Mass most days, votes Conservative (even, possibly, UKIP).  Cherrill. Praying for you. A Mass said for you. God Bless.  

Auntie Jess, 84, drives two hours from her residential home, bringing with her smoked salmon sandwiches for lunch. 


The weather a grey, cold, relentless drizzle.  I go to choir on Monday evening as usual, drive up the kerb, get a punctured tyre: waiting for the RAC in the rain.

We watch Gomorrah with Sam. Patrick cooks fish and chips. ‘I hope I get to spend a few more years with you,’ he says.


Two weeks later, a Sunday morning, we tell the boys, skyping with James:  he’s just got home after a night out in the bars of San Sebastian.  Patrick, Sam and I sit on the sofa. James is lying in bed, his face distorted by the camera being too close. 

Room’s a bit of a mess, he says sheepishly.

I wish I didn’t have to tell you this. 

I’m so sorry to have to tell you this.

James’ face looks red, crumpled; it seems he is trying hard to breathe.  

Breathe deeply, I tell him. I wish I could hug you.

Sam is silent, unmoving, stiff between us, his parents. 

There are effective treatments, the doctor says that treatment can be very effective.

I do not mention the spread.

James says he is coming home. No, no I say, not yet, you have your life in Spain, don’t give up on that.

James, alone in his basic rented room, crying. 

James – do you have someone out there you can share this with?

 I might phone Pete. 

We all cry.  Four is better than two, I say. We’ll face this together. 

It’s my fault they are suffering: I am changing their lives forever.

I think a lot about my mother.

Dear God, please give me more than six months.


Mum never looked after herself.  Always the early morning smoke with the cup of tea, leaning in to watch the TV in the corner, hunched over in her dressing gown.

That’s the first thing she wanted after you were born, Auntie Doris told me. ‘Give me a fag.’

By the time she noticed the lump it was sizeable.  The rush, with Doris, to the GP. The mastectomy, the chemo, all too late.  It was in her bones. 

I wasn’t around much. For one thing I was living in London, 170 miles away from their Devon village.  But it was more than that. 

I felt guilty of course.

I’m wearing her wedding ring. It’s just a thin gold band. Auntie Doris gave it to me after Mum died; she was 70.

 ‘Here, you should have this Cherrill,’ said my aunt. She’d come into the cottage through the back door, as usual. ‘Your mum would want you to have it.’

‘What, they’ve even taken her wedding ring off her?’ said my dad, sitting in the brown armchair with the wings, the one where he always sat, at one end of their narrow sitting room, his voice quivering. 

He never went to see her in hospital. He’d given up. Needed help with washing, dressing, shaving. 

Thank God for Auntie Doris, next door.


‘Lovely to see you,’ says Dr Chris Marston, my oncologist. He is charming, personable, soft spoken.

‘Most people live for 2-3 years on chemotherapy,’ he says. 

Better than six months then.

‘Under 10% get to five years.’ 

And without treatment? ‘It’s a matter of months.’ 

Twelve weeks of chemo, once every two weeks, and if all goes well it can carry on. 

The drug regimen is called Folfiri. The gold standard. It’s given by infusion, through a PICC line; this is a tube inserted via a vein in the arm, into a large vein in my chest.

He hands me a MacmilIan print out. I can expect, among other things, hair loss, sore mouth, bruising, bleeding, blood rashes, diarrhoea, fatigue.

I sign the consent forms. Of course I do.

We wait for the first appointment, for the chemo to start.  After a week, I call Guy’s, get someone in admin.  ‘Can’t see anything about you on the system,’ she says.

Finally a date: May 15.  Six weeks after the first scan. The day before Sam’s birthday. He’ll be 25.


The cancer centre is vast, modern, bright:  psychedelic flower prints on the walls, co-ordinated furniture, vivid green doors.

 I don’t want to be part of it. Part of all the sickness, the weight loss, the older men like stick insects, with their walking sticks. What happens to people’s legs, when they have cancer?

I’m sitting opposite this man, 70-odd. His wife has gone to find a sandwich. His face looks shrunken below his cap, behind dark glasses.  He wears old track suit trousers with a red stripe, white fluffy socks, black cord slippers with rubber soles. As if he has given up. But maybe he was always like that.

Not sure why it’s the men who stick in my mind, not the women.

 Will this be me? Will I have stick arms and legs?

Up in the ‘Chemotherapy village’ (as it’s been dubbed by PR), it’s crowded. The padded chemo chairs are a dull purple, with controls to change position: upright or lying down or legs up.  

People sleep, chat, eat hospital sandwiches, play with their phones. 

My nurse is Rianna, it says so on her yellow badge. A senior staff nurse. She is smiley, with hair in a ponytail and glasses.

‘How are you today?’ It’s a standard question, but meant well.

She wheels a trolley over.

Blood pressure Ok. Temperature OK. Anti-nausea pills taken . 

Then it starts. The drug, on a drip, is connected to my PICC line. It takes four hours.

Patrick goes for a walk in Borough Market, brings me fresh moussaka for lunch. It’s very good. He buys a birthday cake for Sam, flourless chocolate, from Konditor & Cook: it’s pricey but I can’t make one this year.

I fiddle with the heating controls on my purple padded chair.


I’ve come to Guy’s for the third chemo cycle but the doctors say I am too ill to have it. Breathlessness, weakness, high temperature, oxygen levels low.  I’m admitted instead.  

Welcome to Dorcas ward. A thoracic ward: for chest diseases. No bed free on an oncology ward.

‘Hello, I’m Pauline and I’ll be looking after you today.’ 

That’s nice. It’s nice to have the same face for your blood pressure, flow chart, temperature, cannula, drugs. 

11 pm on the ward. Jean, probably early 80s, in for lung surgery, lies across from me, stiff on the pillows, like a rag doll, always sliding down towards the end of the bed. 

‘I have to spend a penny,’ she tells the nurse.

‘Do you have to spend a penny? That’s fine, don’t worry.’

‘I can’t find my pain buzzer.’

‘Look, there it is, I can put it in your pocket if you like. ‘

‘No, I want it out, on the side so I can reach it.’

‘OK that’s fine.’

 ‘Nurse! I have lost my yellow pain button.’

‘Look it’s just here, not to worry. I am here if you need me.’

‘But where is my pain button?’

‘I’ve just put your call button here by your side.’

 ‘But where is my pain button?’

‘Don’t worry my love, it’s here and I am here if you have any pain.’

So it goes on. From 12-2 am.

Fuck off pain button.

In the morning Jean seems different, alert.  She trained as a nurse half a century ago. She is showing a young nurse how to make a hospital corner. 

‘You have to get it tight.’

‘I am trying.’

‘No it’s no good. Tighter.’

‘They don’t teach us this any more.’


The days go by. I start to feel better, less breathless. 

Jean, the rag doll woman, is still there, still slipping down the hospital bed.  

I get visits from the infectious disease team, oncology team, lung team. They diagnose a lung inflammation, pneumonitis, probably triggered by the chemo. Bad news and more bad luck: I can no longer have the ‘gold standard’ drugs.

Patrick comes; we draw the curtain closed and lie on the bed, holding each other. 

He gets me a chocolate cake from the café. I had asked for shortbread. Does he not listen?

6pm dinner. NHS chicken fricassee, roast potatoes, sweetcorn, crumble. Not bad actually.

Sam visits. Squashed together on the hospital bed, we watch the World Cup on my laptop: Spain vs Portugal.   


End of visiting time.

All the goodbyes.

Love you 

Love you

Love ya

Love you darlin

Love you mum

Love you loads.

Love you very much. 


After a week, I am released. Discharged. Oxygen levels, temperature, blood pressure all OK.  But chemo is on hold until my lungs recover completely.  

It could be four weeks before I start active treatment for my cancer.   

My cancer is not taking a break. It is in there, growing, and I am having no treatment.

I am sent home with a large carrier bag from the pharmacy

Fluconazole, 50mg daily. For oral candidiasis.

Predisnolone, 40mg daily reducing.  For lung inflammation.

Co-trimoxazole, five pills twice a day. For infection. These are the worst. Big tablets morning (10 am) and evening (10 pm). I have to brace myself, to swallow them. 

‘Just take a large gulp of water,’ says Sam.

21 days of this.


It’s the fatigue, the weakness, which gets me down. In the afternoons especially.  I could just lie on the sofa, forever.

I used to be so busy, restless even, to fill the day. Walks, gardening, writing, cooking, swimming, cycling, aerobics. All gone. 

How can I live like this? A half life.

I’d rather die than live like this. 

My face and neck, swollen from the steroids. Strange pads of fat between the collarbones and around the waist. A dry, dusty mouth; a metallic taste. Thin, papery skin: it tears easily and does not heal. 

Most mornings, I wake up grief stricken.

‘Take each day as it comes,’ is the advice from Janice, the colorectal nurse, my ‘key worker’.  But each day is the same. 

I feel so alone. I am alone with this.

 ‘I love you Cherrill,’ says my brother, his voice breaking before he quickly puts down the phone. He’s never said that before. 


Kate, my counsellor, must be in her 30s, vivacious, dark curly hair, crimson lipstick and today, a long swirly skirt – large cerise flowers on a black background.  

We talk – of grief, uncertainty, about how long I have, our sons.  

She is nice enough. But it’s hard to say if it helps.  

Going home afterwards, before getting the train, I buy some jerk chicken with mango slaw from a barbecue stall. I find a shady bench to sit and eat.  I have developed a referred pain in my shoulder, from my liver, swollen from all the lesions.  

‘Live the best possible life you can for as long as you can,’ says my old therapist. ‘You cannot get to acceptance until you acknowledge the loss.’


I’m trying the cold cap. Designed to help prevent hair loss. A large, tight, heavy helmet, filled with frozen coolant to -25-30 C.  Attached by coil to a refrigerator. Worn not only for the chemo but for 90 minutes afterwards. That’s about four hours. 

I get very cold. The strap below the chin is tight, squashes my swollen cheeks.

I can’t sleep, read, relax.

It makes me cry.

But it helps a bit. 

I still have some hair on top –  wispy, thin.

But none left at the sides, where the cold cap doesn’t reach..

Other women shave their heads, wear hoop earrings and loud lipstick, have the bone structure to carry it off. Not me.

I’d just got my hair as I wanted it too. I’d grown out the colour and it was a nice silver grey.

‘You’ve never liked your hair,’ says Patrick.


We’re in Wimpole Street, Marylebone: posh designer shops and pricey restaurants. 

Visiting Jennifer Effie’s Hair Solutions, which I read about in The Guardian.

Jennifer is softly spoken, sympathetic. 

She doesn’t use the word wig. It’s a ‘hair replacement system’. 

Human hair, sourced in Russia, designed to match exactly the colour and texture of my own.

You can keep it on all the time (or not), wash it, wear it at night, whatever, she says.

Afterwards, after the first visit, we buy me a linen Jacket from Toast and have coffee and cake in the mock Viennese café.

At the final fitting the silver grey hair is cut and styled.

Patrick sits sleepily in the corner, watching as Jennifer teaches me to get it on and off.

The hair replacement system costs a fortune. 

I‘ve only worn it once, when Dave came. 

Made me look a bit like a suburban housewife.

It feels – fake. 

Like being in fancy dress. 


I am having sliced apple with full fat yogurt in the kitchen. As usual, the chemo means it tastes of nothing. 

I used to love my food. Still do. But so hard to eat something that tastes of nothing.

God, I wish I could enjoy breakfast like the old days.

Sacred music is playing on radio 3. It’s a dull morning. 

I can hear the Polish builders hammering next door.

Here’s Sam, come in from his 12 hour shift. Slim in his jeans. Walking up and down the galley kitchen, legs apart like a cowboy, now hugging Patrick.

He reaches for a large container sitting on top of the fridge. Optimum Nutrition Serious Mass, calorie rich protein source. Holds 2.73 kg of whey powder, strawberry flavour.

To help increase muscle mass and size.

‘This one’s empty. I finished it ages ago,’ he says, grinning.

‘He’s got the whole of this container in his body,’ says Patrick.

Sam is laughing.

‘Well, I expect he’s excreted some of it by now,’ I say. 

‘I need the extra protein,’ says Sam.

‘You don’t need it with a desk job,’ says Patrick.

‘You’re not doing any exercise either.’

‘Yes I am. Not now, but in between shifts.

‘I was losing weight.’

I’m going to try a sourdough roll with a rollmop. I slather the roll in butter. So much butter, cheese since the diagnosis – God knows what my arteries are like. 

It’s no good. Still no taste. 

‘Chocolate seems to taste,’ I tell Patrick. 

‘And apfelmus.’

‘Isn’t sugar feeding the cancer?’

‘No! Shut the fuck up with that.’

‘It’s what Joe always said.’ 

Yesterday I had too much sugar. Jelly beans. Sesame snaps. Mince pie.  One and a half Golf bars

Could I be feeding the cancer?


I’m catching the 8.15 train for a CT scan at Guy’s. It’s packed and I am standing.  The priority seats are taken by young commuters, looking healthy. There’s one just in front of me, occupied by a young woman in a green silk dress and silky blonde hair.  

I look at the illustrations above the priority seats. They show a pregnant women, someone with children, old people with walking sticks. Where do I fit?

I feel shy to ask. Worried to cause an argument. I roll up a sleeve so my PICC line is showing. Lightly touch the woman on the shoulder. 

‘Excuse me. I’m a cancer patient going to Guy’s. Would you mind….?’

She gathers up her bags. People watch. It’s hard for her to get out of the seat, what with the crowded carriage. She half turns to smile. She is gracious about it.

‘Of course, you are welcome.’ 

It feels like a small victory, a relief, of sorts.


At Guy’s I’m taken to a room to have a cannula inserted, so they can inject contrast dye into my veins. But then, the assistant – is she a nurse? I’m not sure – notices my PICC line.

‘We can use that,’ she says.

This makes me nervous. My PICC line is so delicate, a fine tube which has been threaded to a vein just above my heart.  It has to last, not be pulled around, not become infected or damaged.

Is she sure they can use it for the dye?

Yes, she is sure.

The room is cold. I lie down on the table, attached to the CT machine. Leaning over me on one side, is a young man with a beard. A fashionably long and bushy beard.  This makes me nervous.  I know I shouldn’t be prejudiced against beards. I’m not sure of his status either – a radiographer?

One my other side a young woman is explaining what will happen.  The man with the beard is sterile, she says. He is going to remove the dressing from the PICC line and flush it with saline solution to make sure it is working. Then she leaves.

The man is pulling off part of the dressing and is trying to inject the saline, the flush. It will not go through. The PICC line is blocked.  He keeps trying.

The young woman comes back in. She takes my PICC line arm and waves it around in the air. This sometimes does the trick, she says.  The PICC line stays blocked.  

The man with the beard keeps trying. 

I can’t stand it. 

‘Let’s do the cannula,’ I say.

They put back the dressing, tape it up, at first in the wrong position.

Someone else comes in to insert the needle with the cannula into a vein in the other arm. This goes OK. 

‘Ok, we are ready,’ says the woman. They all leave the room, to stand behind an interconnecting window. The table on which I’m lying moves towards the arch of the scanner, the name SIEMENS writ large across it. Lights flash .

‘Breathe and hold,’ says an automated voice as I am moved under the arch. I obey.

‘Breathe normally,’ says the voice as the table moves out. 

So then they inject the dye into the cannula, which makes me feel hot and as if I am going to pee.

It’s over quite quickly. The cannula tube is removed. ‘At least the cannula worked smoothly,’ says the woman.

I leave, exhausted, trying to hold back tears. Wander into the Guy’s shop, selling scarves and hats and creams and other pampery stuff for woman having chemo. Wander out quickly. 

Train home. Arrive station exit. It’s boiling hot. Where is Patrick with the car? 

‘Where are you?’ I scream to no one in particular. A couple stare. I call his mobile.  Turns out he is in the car park the other side of the station, the one near Waitrose. I am shouting down the phone. 

‘It’s because you said you had to go to Waitrose,’ he says. 

‘But I sent you a message saying don’t drive off – wait for me.’

‘Stay there – I’ll come back.’

‘No! I’ll manage.’

I sweat up the stairs, swearing, crying.  It must be the steroids making me like this.

There’s the car.

‘I texted you to wait.’ 

‘I’d moved off by then because you said you wanted to go to Waitrose. 

‘I know you’re cross. It’s not easy you know. Finding the right spot.’ 

‘I’m not cross.’

We often get this wrong, him picking me up.  He is trying his best 

We get home, I take another anti sickness pill, lie down.

Nice day. 


A week after the new chemo has begun: 

Hoarse voice. Tiring to talk.

Wobbly, shaky.


Shoulder and neck pain, referred from the liver. 

Discomfort, upper abdomen.

Swollen pads of fat below the chin. A thickened waist.

Swollen cheeks.

I use concealer on my face, over the reddened skin.

I use eyeshadow, to counterbalance the swollen cheeks. 

I use lipstick to give my face some colour.

People say how well I am looking. 


My friends post pictures of their holidays: Greek islands, south of France, Adriatic coast, Montenegro. 

We do day trips. 

Deal, near Dover: we eat fish and chips. It is sunny but windy with a nip in the air. Poppies, fennel and valerian are growing on the beach.  

Sandwich Bay: with arms and PICC line held above the water, I stride into the warm sea. Afterwards, we sleep on the beach, under the parasol. Walk along the shoreline. The ridges of wet sand, with the tide out, stretch in front of us under the mild, low sun.

 We see many dead crabs, jellyfish. A young girl passes us on a pony.

It’s so beautiful we don’t need to go to Greece, I say. 

We are trying to make the most of life.

You’re doing so brilliantly Cherrill, say my friends. You’re amazing.

You’re so brave. So positive. 

Some days, I cannot stop these huge sobs. They go on and on. 

My life feels destroyed. 

Patrick holds me. 

‘My heart is broken,’ I say.

‘All our hearts are broken,’ he says.


We are lying in bed. After the storm, the heat has eased and the air is fresh.

After all this time, after the heatwave, to hear the rain feels strange, nostalgic, like the Cornish holidays we used to take. 

I’m not feeling too bad! Why is that? Mouth OK. No wobble. Relaxed, lying next to him.

It doesn’t matter how the sex goes any more. No one is judging. 

‘I’m worried,’ he says.


‘They say to wear a condom.’

‘Oh. You think I’ve given you the chemotherapy?’

‘We should look at the advice.’

I am also worried. The PICC line. I was pulling down hard on his shoulder with my arms. Is it OK? Still in place?

Downstairs, by accident, I knock into the open door of the dishwasher.  It’s only a small knock, on the right shin but looking down I see the skin is torn and there is blood.

Blast. Upstairs for Sudocreme and hunting for a big enough plaster.


 I got my Blue Badge today.  It felt exciting. We can park anywhere! Single yellow, double yellow, disabled bays, meters for free.  

Let’s bomb into town with my Blue Badge! We could park in Piccadilly Circus if we wanted to. No more waiting in the dark for trains that don’t come, that are cancelled. 

Am I really entitled? 

‘How far can you walk?’  Nasuh, my benefits adviser, had asked.  ‘Usually people struggle between 50-80 metres. Are there days when you’re not mobile at all?’

I had hesitated. I can’t say I really have problems walking from to the supermarket from the car park.

But: ‘There are days when I can’t get off the sofa, I’m so wiped out. With nausea, fatigue, pain. ‘

He had seemed satisfied with that. 


Dr Marston is happy with the scan results. 

 ‘The scan shows your cancer has stabilised and if anything shrunk a little,’ he says.

He’s reading the results off the screen. ‘The main area in the liver – what we call a marker lesion – was 10.6 cm, is now 9.3 cm.’ There’s been no change in the lungs and colon.

The probable scenario, he says, is that after chemo, I will have a few months’ break, after which the tumours will start to grow again. I will need more treatment. 

They will always start to grow again.

‘So it’s good news,’ I say.

He nods, shakes hands goodbye. 

They will always start to grow again.

There is no cure.

 I already knew that, of course.  

Later, we go to eat at the Orchard.

I have a lesion of 9.3 cm on my liver. There are multiple other lesions. 

Surely this must be a mistake, I think, surely he meant millimetres. 

The next day I check with one of the nurses. No, the measurement is in centimetres. 

On the National Cancer Institute website, a 10cm tumour is the size of a grapefruit.  

I wonder how my liver is functioning at all.


Everywhere I look in the park, people are healthier than me. Even very fat people who can hardly walk, people with walking sticks, elderly people bent over. Then there are the younger ones, tanned after the summer, the women with glossy hair and good teeth,  smiling. With small children, or in couples, or with a dog, with their lives ahead.

And women my age, I see them at galleries, theatre, cultural events. Usually well groomed, often with other women. Carefree, chatty, enjoying, just starting out on, their Third Age: the children grown.  

I think of my friends, mostly in good health, sending me Whatsapp pictures of their adventures: staying in whitewashed Greek villages, relaxing in a bar in Vietnam, cycling across Spain. 

And I have to ask, although it’s not a scientific way to look at it, although the mutation is meant to be random: why me?

What was it about me?