Serious illness served as a kick up the backside for Susan to fulfil her long-held dream of becoming a writer.

I’d always wanted to write a book. My big dream was to write fiction, however I had a stressful full-time job as a magazine art director, so apart from a few articles through the years I’d never got round to the writing part. I’m not the type to get up at 5am to dash off a couple of chapters before work, so for a long time it just stayed in the back of my mind as a ‘one-day’ dream.

The theme I most wanted to explore was adoption, having been adopted as a baby myself.

But then I got very ill. Over a period of five years I had breast cancer twice. This meant enduring a double mastectomy and two cycles of treatment that made me extremely sick. I had a reaction to chemotherapy so severe that I had to be rushed to hospital several times in an ambulance. Being a single mum to my teenage son, Alfie, it was understandably a very difficult time for both of us. During those five years I had a year off work while undergoing and recovering from treatment.

So that something positive came out of that hellish period I decided to write for an hour each day. I’d just write anything, even if I thought it was rubbish, as long as I was writing something that was all that mattered. And by the end of that year my book idea had coalesced, becoming clearer in my head. I had to go back to work then though so the idea remained on the back burner.

“If I were sensible I might have invested that money in a pension fund. But I just saw it as a massive opportunity.”

After I got better the biggest challenge was getting my mind back in a balanced state. I’d been quite pragmatic during treatment, but once I was better I completely crashed mentally. Full of fear and anxiety after five years of relentless sickness and treatment, I was unable to sleep because my brain was running at 100 miles an hour. Then after seeing a brilliant counsellor I took up meditation and yoga and those two things helped me massively. I’d always been somewhat of a hedonist so embracing the spiritual side of life was a big change for me!

During this time I’d also lost both my parents. It was horrendous to lose them, especially after my own extended illness and I miss them enormously. But after we’d sold Dad’s house I realised I had the financial opportunity to leave my job and follow my dream. As an art director for many years, I’d always loved my job, but my industry was in decline and I was ready to try something new. Friends urged me to hang on until the inevitable redundancy package was offered, but to me sitting there waiting for the axe to fall was a really unhealthy thing to do. So I just left. And it felt right.

If I were a more sensible person I might have invested that money in a pension fund so I could live comfortably for the rest of my life. I just saw it as a massive opportunity though so, after paying off my mortgage, I decided to seize it. I’m sure some people thought me reckless, but being so ill for so long had given me a massive kick up the backside. People often come out with cliches such as, ‘We could all die tomorrow’, but the thing is, I actually could. And if there’s something you want to do, facing your own mortality does give you the impetus to get on with it. I felt a real sense of urgency to write the book. So after quitting my job in spring 2017 I went to stay with family in Ibiza to get cracking.

Then after a few months of writing my life took another unexpected detour. When a friend who’d been made redundant asked me if I wanted to go travelling with her, I thought ‘Why not?” It was another thing I’d always longed to do and now there was nothing stopping me. I had this sense of freedom and adventure that I’d never known before. We only intended to go to Bali for a month, but got a bit over-excited and the plan soon turned into an around-the-world trip that lasted six months.

The trip took us to so many stunning and unforgettable places – Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Peru, Bali, Sri Lanka, and so many other countries. We visited temples, got invited into people’s homes, slept in cabins on the beach and went to blue moon parties.

“If there’s something we really want to do we need to do it now”

It’s incredible to see how other people live, how different their lives are to ours. It’s the little stories that really resonate, and whilst it’s fantastic to visit awe-inspiring places like Machu Picchu, it’s the people you encounter along the way and the experiences that stick with you. We met little girls in Guatemala who’ll never leave the dilapidated shack they were born in, never have an education, and it really strikes you what a little bubble we live in. We don’t realise how easy our lives are until we meet people who struggle on a daily basis.

And all the while on my travels I kept writing. Back home now, the book’s progressing well. I sometimes read the work of brilliant writers and wonder what the hell I’m doing, even trying to write when they’re so much better than me. But it’s not just about ability or writing skills. You shouldn’t stop yourself doing something through fear or imagining you’re not going to be any good – you won’t know until you try.

I realise not everyone has the chances I’ve had. I was very blessed getting an inheritance – but I also lost both my parents and went through years of sickness, so I’m hardly walking around feeling smug about it. It’s definitely not easy to do something like this. Even if you have the money and the freedom, it’s still daunting to embark on the unknown.
But it was certainly my illness that gave me that push. In the back of my mind was the thought, “You’ve got to do it now”. And we should all have that thought. If there’s something we really want to do we need to do it now, not put things off. None of us know how long ‘the future’ will last.

Words: Marina Gask