Nod Ghosh

Novels, short fiction & poetry

What Cancer Taught Me - Jake Bailey, with Nicola McCloy

Jake is an eighteen-year-old who got cancer. The sort of cancer he developed was not a good one. Told he'd only have weeks to live without immediate treatment, he embarked on a gruelling chemotherapy protocol.

'What Cancer Taught Me,' is Jake's story. The bulk of the book is adapted from notes he made whilst in isolation on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Christchurch Hospital. It has the feel of a motivational or self-help book, because that is what people will want from this young man.

The reason his book will fly from the shelves after its May 15th release is because Jake did a courageous thing. Many people facing life-threatening illness are mounting similar obstacles, many are fighting demons we'll never know about, but his story has become part of the New Zealand and wider psyche.

Jake wrote a speech, rose from his sick bed less than a week into chemo and delivered his words at Christchurch Boys' High school prize giving. Someone recorded the event; it was shared on YouTube, then shared and shared again.

The now familiar speech went viral a year and a half before the book's release, and that's what resonates with the reader when we encounter his story:

 'Here's the thing − none of us get out of this life alive, so be gallant, be great, be gracious and be grateful for the opportunities you have ...'

The book covers what happened from diagnosis to the point of publication. (The author currently works as a motivational speaker based on the Gold Coast in Australia). With a balance of practical and technical facts, anecdotes, uplifting moments and despair, Jake covers the process of 'working' through his cancer with health care professionals in an entertaining and accessible manner.

He also outlines the consequences of the huge media attention he received, both positive and negative, and some of it is so negative. It's sad to think a person of his age endured trolling and stalking to the extent he did. But he coped. Is coping.

There is an openness in the way he describes some very intimate procedures he encountered. The impact his illness had on his blossoming relationship with girlfriend Jemima is covered sympathetically too.

I was impressed with the accurate and yet clear way he described medical terms used in the narration using a series of glossaries on shaded pages for ease of access.

I also loved the humour in the book, both from Jake himself, and his mother through a series of e-mails that he quotes. Both have described the negative aspects in their own responses with honesty and some brutality.

Someone asked if I thought Jake was a writer in the making, and this is what I said:


Jake was obliged to include 'self-help' type bullet points in this book, in parallel with his current role as a Māia ambassador and his public speaking commitments. I wonder how he feels about this part of getting his story out. Would he have preferred to simply tell the facts and let readers make up their own minds about what could be learnt?


It's hard to know whether he is a writer in the making. That will depend on whether he has other stories to tell. He needed to get this one out. He is an articulate young man, as evidenced by his speech. Jake will go far in whatever he chooses, because he's clever and comes from a privileged background with high expectations.


As for structure, the book goes a little awry towards the end. Perhaps ghost writer Nicola McCloy or Jake's mother Janine Harrington (who is known for writing powerful creative non-fiction) could have helped him tighten the concluding chapters.


'What Cancer Taught Me,' is a book to read for its subject matter rather than literary elegance. The teenage voice has not been edited away. Some will be drawn to the book because of the culture of celebrity.


For me, it provided a glimpse into the world of a lymphoma patient from the other end. Working in leukaemia and lymphoma diagnosis, I am grateful to Jake for completing gaps in my understanding.


NG 13.5.17