Friday, June 9, 2023

‘Cancer Is The Ultimate Preparation For a Pandemic’ Briony Benjamin On Writing The Book She Wish She’d Had When She Was Diagnosed At 31

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Just over a month ago, when Capsule picked Briony Benjamin’s warm and wise book Life Is Tough: But So Are You for our Book Club, we didn’t realise how spot-on the timing would be (hello, surprise lockdown). Briony talks to Capsule about writing in a pandemic, reframing your life after massive change and how she dealt with the ‘time pressure’ of a cancer diagnosis at 31.

“I thought by the time this book came out, we’d be well and truly out of lockdowns and we’d be in the rebuilding phase,” says Briony Benjamin, on the phone from Australia. “I couldn’t have predicted that as the book came out, we’d have most of the eastern seaboard of Australia in lockdown.”

When Briony was first given the green light to create Life is Tough: But So Are You, her part-memoir, part-handbook for difficult times, it was at the beginning of the Covid-19 onslaught last year and she – like all of us – thought that the pandemic would be yesterday’s news by the time the book came out in August 2021. Instead, the book release coincided both with pandemic fatigue AND ongoing pandemic restrictions as well, at a moment when we all really did need to be reminded that we can get through hard times.

“I’ve had so many people reach out saying how much the book have helped them in lockdown this time but also, the amount of people who got their book delivered literally the afternoon they were going back into lockdown. So the timing was pretty uncanny, but I was pleased that the book has proven to be helpful in this time.”

It’s the same for Capsule – when we selected Life is Tough to be our August Book Club pick, we did so because it already felt like a gnarly old combination of the winter blues, mixed with the imminent threat of lockdown. And then the week we announced it, lockdown arrived anyway for Aotearoa – and there seems to be no sign of it shifting in Auckland any time soon. It’s times like these you really want the warm wisdom of someone who has been through it – and with a cancer diagnosis under her belt at age 31, Briony is that person.

“Cancer is sort of this ultimate preparation for a pandemic or any kind of upset, really. I feel like a number of my friends who have been through either chronic fatigue, or maybe a big marriage blow-up, have approached this time with a different sense of [perspective]. Because if you’ve already had to blow everything up, and rebuild and reimagine your life again, it is an interesting sort of preparation. You become used to being able to go with the ebbs and flows of things.”

During her two-year cancer journey, Briony kept the entire situation fairly private, choosing only to tell her community and leave it off her social media. With quite a public job working for popular Australian website Mamamia, this wasn’t always easy. But she says it was important for her own mental health that she was through the process and out the other side before she told people publicly. “I waited until I was in a safe place because it didn’t feel helpful at the time – for me or for anyone else – to be sharing that content.” It’s an attitude that she’s kept when it comes to sharing anything online moving forward, she says. “The first question is ‘do I feel safe? Do I feel like I’m in a good headspace?’ I came from a background of making viral video content and the question I would always ask myself before I made any video is ‘is this helpful to someone else? Why would this connect to them?’ and that’s the filter I run over everything.”

“Cancer is sort of this ultimate preparation for a pandemic or any kind of upset, really…Because you’ve already had to blow everything up, and rebuild and reimagine your life again….”

It was a viral video that lead to the book deal – once she felt comfortable in sharing her diagnosis and recovery from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Briony made a short video for Mamamia called You Only Get One Life, where she detailed the highs and lows, the dark humour and the cry-your-heart-out moments that come with cancer. It was that mix of practical advice and personal insight that she wanted the book to contain, particularly because she was fielding so many messages from people going through their own dark night of the soul, either because of cancer or in other life-upturning events.

“I had a very clear person in mind that I was writing it for, because really it was me, at the beginning of my curve ball. So I was really clear on what I wanted to say and who I wanted to help; I really sat down to write the book I wish I’d had at the beginning.”

The life lessons in Life Is Tough also speak to the great reshuffling so many of us are going through during this strange pandemic time, when we might be re-thinking family plans, or redefining our definition of what success looks like for us. The thirties are such a high-pressure decade for women – your career has started to pick up pace but it’s also when there’s the added expectation of settling into long-term relationships, plus everybody loves to remind you of your biological clock.

After coming out of chemo – and having her relationship blow up in the process – Briony said she did feel that she had lost a lot of precious time. “I felt like ‘well, now I’ve got to start again, I’ve got to meet someone’, and it was a big pressure cooker. I had a chat with a dear mentor of mine one day and I remember him just releasing that stress by going ‘you’ve got wonderful characteristics, you’re doing good work in the world, you’re doing all the right things, you can’t over-stress or try to force it. You just have to enjoy your life, live day by day and it will all unfold as it’s supposed to.’ That permission to not over-think and to take it bit by bit, that was really helpful for me.”

Briony is now in the rebuilding stage, following recovery, and she says her life is very different to how it was before cancer. “It gave me time to sit and reflect – which we’re sort of seeing the world do, with Covid-19 – where you think about what you really want to do with your time on earth? What sort of legacy do you want to leave?”

“It’s made me a lot more deliberate about the energy I spend my time with, and same with the work I want to do. I have lower energy now, because I’m still in recovery, so I just have less threshold for drama or trivial things.”

In Briony’s case, it’s given her a whole new perspective. “It’s made me a lot more deliberate about the energy I spend my time with, and same with the work I want to do. I have lower energy now, because I’m still in recovery, so I just have less threshold for drama or trivial things. And physically I can’t drink any more, which does quite dramatically change your social life,” she laughs.

“So ultimately, it’s been a really positive shift, once I accepted it and came to terms with it. While this is a hugely challenging time for a lot of the world – and particularly for the more vulnerable people in our communities – I’m hopeful that, in time, this moment will be a time of transformation for individuals and communities in the world.”

To read more about our August Book Club choice – and why it’s perfect for now, check out our original story.

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