The day I find myself unable to carry my nine-month-old grandson is the day I decide to go to the doctor. I pick him up, but suddenly find my heart is pumping out of control and get scared I’m going to drop him.
In fact, I’ve been feeling breathless for about five days now. I’ve put it down to a lack of sleep, or to Covid — it is November 2020, after all, although tests have come back negative. But this racing heart is different. This unnerves me.
Still, I genuinely feel no sense of foreboding as I rock up at the Cromwell Hospital in West London to see the respiratory specialist who, just four months before, cured my husband, the actor Johnnie Standing, of a chest infection. Surely that’s all I need too — a prescription for strong antibiotics and a bit of rest.
Instead, unexpectedly, but still not worryingly, he sends me for a series of tests, which is how I find myself smeared in jelly with an ultrasound sonographer prodding a probe deep into my stomach. He prods deeper. Stops. Slithers over my flab. The screen is facing away from me.
‘Who’s your oncologist?’ he asks nonchalantly.
The day I find myself unable to carry my nine-month-old grandson is the day I decide to go to the doctor. says Sarah Standing (above)
‘My oncologist?’ I reply. ‘Oh, I don’t have an oncologist. I don’t have anything that wrong with me. No, I’m just here seeing Dr O’Connor to sort out my breathlessness.’ No alarm bells ring. Not even a muffled tinkle. As improbable as it seems, I completely disregard the comment.
Not much later, I am admitted to a hospital bed. Another doctor spends agonising minutes inserting a tube into my abdomen to drain off the litres of fluid which the sonographer has seen pressing against my lungs and pushing up my other organs.
For hours I lie there with a slowly-filling bag of what looks exactly like Daylesford Organic bone broth attached to me. Drip. Drip. Drip.
In fact, I’ve been feeling breathless for about five days now. I’ve put it down to a lack of sleep, or to Covid — it is November 2020, after all, although tests have come back negative. But this racing heart is different. This unnerves me (Pictured: Sarah Standing in her living room sat on a sofa)
My mother Nanette Newman is also 86 and lives alone. She and Johnnie both need me to be healthy and strong
When Dr O’Connor comes to see me that same night to deliver the news that, yes, the fluid is a symptom of cancer — lymphoma, later diagnosed as non-Hodgkin’s, with a large aggressive tumour perching on my kidney — I don’t say anything.
I just look up at the curtain softly flapping. I feel like my soul and heart are on the ceiling, only my body is left lying passively on the bed. I am terrified. And then he says: ‘I’m worried about your husband. I think this is going to be very hard on him.’
I am not offended. He knows Johnnie. My rock. The love of my life for nearly 40 years. And he is right, this is going to break his heart. ‘I know,’ I say. ‘I am worried, too.’
The thing is, I am 61 but Johnnie is 86, and if you marry someone 25 years younger than you, this isn’t part of the game plan. I’m supposed to be the one who takes care of him, not the other way around.
But I have learned things — big things. I always slightly mocked the trend for being grateful for everything, from a cup of coffee to a sunrise, but now I get it (Pictured: ohn Standing and his wife Sarah attend the Tatler Summer Party, at Home House on June 29, 2006 in London, England)
Now I have it back — that old, wonderful life — I see more clearly than ever that family is everything. More curative, more potent, than any drug they hit you with (Pictured: Sarah Standing, Nanette Newman, Emma Forbes April 18, 2017)
When Dr O’Connor comes to see me that same night to deliver the news that, yes, the fluid is a symptom of cancer — lymphoma, later diagnosed as non-Hodgkin’s, with a large aggressive tumour perching on my kidney — I don’t say anything
It’s not just Johnnie, either. My mother, the actress Nanette Newman, is also 86 and lives alone. She doesn’t know how to use a mobile phone or buy anything on Amazon, and it is the peak of Covid. She and Johnnie both need me to be healthy and strong for them now more than ever.
All my life I have been the fixer, not the one who needs to be fixed. It is a characteristic of my generation of women, stuck in the middle of the sandwich. We mock this endless quest for ‘me time’. Our dignity, our lives, exist in our ability to help others. And now I won’t be able to.
I think of my three grown-up children, India, Archie and Tilly. I love them so much it hurts, and I don’t want them to be burdened with me. I’m so sorry I’m going to morph into the bore they must check up on and run errands for. Sorry I’m going to be the granny to two beloved grandchildren who’s temporarily too bald and too tired to babysit.
I just look up at the curtain softly flapping. I feel like my soul and heart are on the ceiling, only my body is left lying passively on the bed. I am terrified
I am not offended. He knows Johnnie. My rock. The love of my life for nearly 40 years. And he is right, this is going to break his heart
I am also terrified because I love my life. I love everything about it. I love my country. I love my house. I love my neighbourhood in West London, my shops, my job as a writer, my parks, my routine. I love the tiny pot-planted wilderness I’ve nurtured outside my front door. I love the fact I have collected more than 25 different-coloured pairs of Converse sneakers. I love the shade of pink on our drawing-room walls.
But most of all, I love the people in my life. My family. My friends. ‘I somehow don’t think you will lose your hair,’ my mother tells me over the phone, with confidence. ‘I have a strong hunch you will be one of those people who keep theirs.’
Mum has always been a cup-half-full person, just like me. She was (and still is) a proper low-maintenance, natural beauty. No expensive time-consuming tweaks, treatments and medical improvements for my mum — she never needed them.
The thing is, I am 61 but Johnnie is 86, and if you marry someone 25 years younger than you, this isn’t part of the game plan
But I know there’s nothing she can do to protect me from this. Though I don’t need surgery, the type of chemo I’m to have — called R-CHOP — is nicknamed The Red Devil for its brutality. For a week, I sleep on special white silk-satin pillowcases in a desperate attempt to protect the hair on my head.
And then one day, I discover I have none down below. I stare somewhat incredulously and then roar with laughter. If the Red Devil can make a 61-year-old look as sleek as a porn star, it’s got to be doing its job.
I feel like my soul and my heart are on the ceiling
The rest of my hair quickly follows. There’s no gradual loss for me; what happens is more like Chernobyl. Mum was wrong. I miss her terribly but we are each so terrified of infecting the other, we cannot risk meeting. She and I are in separate Covid and cancer bubbles, and rather amazingly, hers is with Elton John and David Furnish. Elton came into our lives when I was 12, and quickly became a close family friend. He was like the son my father — the film director and novelist Bryan Forbes — never had.
But I know there’s nothing she can do to protect me from this. Though I don’t need surgery, the type of chemo I’m to have — called R-CHOP — is nicknamed The Red Devil for its brutality
Now he looks after mum with unbelievable attentiveness, checking up on her every day, inviting her to Sunday lunch every week when restrictions ease. A month after my diagnosis, he and David even have her on Christmas Day, which makes me hugely grateful but also horribly sad. Johnnie and I are alone for the day, of course. For lunch we have Deliveroo pizza.
After several cycles of chemo, the withering truly begins. My body is like an apple that got left on a window sill behind a curtain. If I hold my arm out, the skin spontaneously ripples into that of an old person. Same with the thighs.
One way I deal with this is to save nothing for ‘best’. I tip double the number of drops of Floris Rose Geranium oil into my bath. I drench the hats covering my egg head with the expensive perfume Fracas because it reminds me powerfully of my mum. I read hardbacks in the bath, knowing the steam turns the glue in the spine sticky.
For a week, I sleep on special white silk-satin pillowcases in a desperate attempt to protect the hair on my head
Cancer makes you both supremely selfish and at the same time totally compliant, like a child having to fit in with its parents’ schedule.
I exist within my own parameters and follow my own body clock rather like my grandson, Billy, who hasn’t yet learnt the art of fitting into the conventions that society demands of him. Meanwhile Johnnie becomes my carer, and it is horribly difficult for both of us.
At the age of 86, he is filling hot water bottles for a woman 25 years younger. He makes me cups of tea, goes out to buy the newspapers, endlessly unloads the dishwasher, rubs my feet. He sweetly does jigsaws he has no interest in doing and watches TV programmes he doesn’t really want to watch, to keep me company.
He offers to make me dinner, but I can’t accept too many of Johnnie’s culinary attempts, as they all revolve around eggs. Omelettes, scrambled, fried, boiled. On rotation. It’s the thought that counts.
After several cycles of chemo, the withering truly begins. My body is like an apple that got left on a window sill behind a curtain
I’ve discovered most actors are totally ill-equipped to deal with real life. They exist in a sort of arrested state of development and are child-like in their stubborn reluctance to engage with the normal, everyday hiccups of house maintenance. I remember Johnnie once shouting at me when we had a massive leak gushing through the ceiling and I was instructing him to turn the water off at the mains, ‘Darling, you married an actor, not a plumber. What on earth makes you think I would know where the mains are?’
They are, however, brilliant at many other things: playing imaginative games with children, reading bedside stories with lots of different voices, having an infectiously laissez-faire attitude towards authority, and ensuring life in their presence is never, not even for a split second, dull or boring.
We first met when I was five years old and he was 30. He had a part in my father’s film King Rat, which was shooting out in California, where my family then lived.
Cancer makes you both supremely selfish and at the same time totally compliant, like a child having to fit in with its parents’ schedule
It was 1965 and Johnnie and his then-wife Jill took me on an outing to Marineland, which was billed as the largest oceanarium in the world. We next met in 1981, when we were both newly single.
Indeed, my dad inadvertently set us up, suggesting that I ask Johnnie along to the West End premiere of Fame.
In those days, I fancied myself as an edgy dresser, and that night I wore a black vinyl pencil skirt I’d got from Vivienne Westwood’s shop SEX on the King’s Road with fishnet tights and a frilly white pirate shirt. Johnnie didn’t bat an eyelid. When he dropped me back at my flat, he came in for a bit and, together with my flatmate, Felicity Dean, we opened a bottle of wine. I had the most fabulous evening, and wrote in my journal that night: At last! A date with a brain.
The next morning, Johnnie rang me up and asked how he could get hold of Felicity. I put down the phone and told her. I also told her Johnnie was much too old for her (we were both 21). And that he was probably trouble and, although fantastic fun, would ultimately bring her nothing but heartache. She believed me, and I married him a year later.
I exist within my own parameters and follow my own body clock rather like my grandson, Billy, who hasn’t yet learnt the art of fitting into the conventions that society demands of him
The first night I slept with him, he told me this was my obligatory affair with an older man. He was never, ever going to get married again. And as he already had one child, Alexander, he didn’t feel the need to have any more. Not at his age.
‘And what if it doesn’t work out?’ he’d lament as our relationship got more serious.
‘What if it does?’ I’d reply.
‘I’ve got seven divorces within my immediate family,’ he would fret. ‘I’ve got none,’ I’d reply.
We had three children within four and a half years. We may have a 25-year age gap between us, but it works. When people question or comment on it, I invariably reply, ‘I’m the mature one in this relationship.’ Which I undoubtedly am.
It’s the funny little things that get you through the days and nights when you’re ill like I am. My sister Emma — who thanks to Covid is stuck in America, where she lives, and can’t fly to be with me — picked two stones up off the beach when I was first diagnosed. White, smooth, oval stones. She wrote on them ‘you’ and ‘me’ and drew little smiley faces and sent them to me by post. They come everywhere with me.
India plays Word Hunt with me. It’s a game of anagrams we can play against each other on our phones. India tends to keep her emotions under wraps, but this game has become like our private SOS. A 999 call. When my phone pings, requesting a game, I know she’s got me in her thoughts.
Play with me, Mum, I’m here. You aren’t alone.
Keep going. Don’t give up.
Beat me. Beat cancer.
Tilly comes and stands outside our front door most days. An extremely welcome mini visitation. I think she needs physical proof that I’m still standing. Which I can’t actually do for any prolonged length of time before I start to feel woozy.
Archie calls me. Sleep-deprived from broken baby nights, he checks in regularly, but I can sense he’s too traumatised to engage fully in the reality of what’s happening to me. He self-protects by skirting around the issue, and concentrates just on the practicalities. ‘When is your next appointment, Mum?’
We talk about Billy’s first tooth, or the fact he loves sweet potatoes. And I understand. I get it.
If we both pretend this isn’t happening, perhaps we can make-believe it isn’t real.
The truth is, it’s my family who carry the burden of my illness. For 14 months of treatment, I do exist in a sort of survival trance of denial, while they deal every day with the severity of my situation. And when the PET scan comes back clear at the end of that time, at last I can see just how they’ve held me up, kept me going, understood how much danger I was in, when I didn’t.
I think of myself as selfish for that. I find it hard to forgive myself. The fact is cancer is not a fairy tale with a happy ending. It’s a Grimm’s forest that can become scary at any given moment.
The safety net of good health has been whipped away, and never again will I be able to dismiss a weird twinge or ache, nor treat it with indifference.
I will forever be a nightwatchman, searching for signs my luck has run out. And I mourn. I can’t pretend I don’t. I grieve the loss of innocence, and the safety I felt within my skin.
But I have learned things — big things. I always slightly mocked the trend for being grateful for everything, from a cup of coffee to a sunrise, but now I get it. I’m grateful. When I first got ill, I harboured such grand ideas about what I’d do if — no, scratch that, when — I recovered. But how quickly I’ve become indifferent to all the things I thought I wanted.
I fantasised about fancy family holidays in the Maldives, and big adventures. I projected myself forward into an imagined new lifestyle, one that bore no resemblance to the life I’d put on hold, only to realise I already had everything I ever wanted. The only thing that mattered was to release my children and husband from the tyranny of having to worry about me.
Now I have it back — that old, wonderful life — I see more clearly than ever that family is everything. More curative, more potent, than any drug they hit you with.
- ADAPTED from Dancing With The Red Devil: A Memoir Of Love, Hope, Family And Cancer by Sarah Standing (£20, Headline), out on March 2. © Sarah Standing 2023. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until March 13, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £20) visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.