hen I talk about ‘From Me to You’, a project encouraging us to write letters to friends with cancer, the words inspiring, wonderful and amazing are thrown back at me. But when I’m asked how I came up with the idea, no-one ever expects me to say: ‘It all began in a car park in Sussex.’
I first met Brian Greenley on a yoga holiday in India in November 2009, and while we got on well, we actually had little in common. I was a 41-year-old, single career girl in London, while Brian, 52, in a civil partnership, had recently taken voluntary redundancy from his accountancy job and was thinking of setting up a gardening business in Berkshire.
We did meet up a couple of times on our return to the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When, six months later, Brian told me he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer, I was sad to hear his news, but I didn’t experience that stab in the stomach when a close friend shares something so devastating.
I didn’t even feel that I knew Brian well enough to ask at what stage the cancer was. Perhaps it was because of this awkwardness that I heard myself making a very unexpected offer: I would write letters to cheer him up while he was undergoing treatment.
I don’t know what possessed me. I was no writer. But I’d made the offer and a bemused Brian, with more pressing matters on his mind, had accepted. And so the letters began.
While my offer seemed generous, I suspected I wouldn’t need to write for long. Brian told me they were starting him on a course of radiotherapy and had tattooed three freckles onto his stomach so he would be zapped in the right place. In my ignorance, I concluded his cancer probably wasn’t too serious and my stint of letter writing would be complete within a few months.
But my assumptions were wrong. Brian’s bowel cancer took a hold in his liver and then his lungs, and it soon became apparent I was going to have to write many more letters than the initial few I had anticipated.
Brian’s prognosis was grim, but as he embarked on three bouts of surgery, to remove tumours, and chemotherapy – I remembered I had promised that my letters would cheer him up, so I needed to make them funny. I decided I wouldn’t dwell on questions about how he was feeling, but instead fill the letters with humorous tales of career-girl life and inspiring people that I came across from day-to-day. I watched the world through different eyes, looking for the eccentric and the absurd. With a bit of creative licence, I could gather enough anecdotes to fill a letter every other week.
I created a routine where I would sit on my sofa, in the evening, alone, and write. Sometimes the letters would be handwritten, while others were typed and printed off. I didn’t judge my writing or edit it, but instead imagined that Brian was in the room and we were having a conversation. I began to cherish the time I took for myself, feeling good I was doing something for someone else.
My enthusiasm for the writing was bolstered by Brian’s response on receiving the letters. ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put it in the postbox means so much,’ he once told me. ‘I feel reconnected with the real world.’ I knew Brian had plenty of friends and family, so I was surprised he felt so isolated. But having since spoken to many people suffering with cancer, this seems to be a common problem as friends distance themselves, often fearful of saying the wrong thing.
Brian told me he wouldn’t always be in the mood, or feel well enough, to read my letters when they landed on the doormat. He would save them until a time when he could enjoy them – a privilege we don’t afford ourselves with texts and emails. And if he was having a particularly miserable day, he would hunt out letters which had made him laugh and re-read them. With each letter sent, our friendship developed as I shared stories about my life. The letters allowed us to trust one another.
In one letter, just before his first surgery to remove a tumour from the bowel, me thinking this was going to cure him, I wrote: I have made an executive decision that once you have had your op, and are free of cancer, my letters will not stop. (Of course, this is subject to you telling me my letters have become a complete drag and the thought of them coming to an end is all that’s kept you going!). I love writing to you. You are now my ‘letter friend’, and long may it continue. If I didn’t write I wouldn’t feel as connected to you as I do and I consider that a real treat and privilege. Please, please, please can I carry on?
And carry on I did, for the following two years, as Brian’s cancer progressed to Stage 4. When we met up between letters, we discussed the stories I’d written, and so didn’t feel the only thing to talk about was cancer. Brian didn’t write back but that didn’t matter. I never allowed myself to think he might not survive – I needed to keep my letters upbeat.
Fast forward to 2016. Brian and I are standing in a car park in Crawley, about to be recorded by BBC Radio Sussex for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Recording intimate conversations between friends and relatives, The Listening Project works in partnership with the British Library to collect and broadcast stories which give a unique picture of British life in the 21st century.
Brian is now four years clear of cancer, after surgery to remove tumours from his bowel, liver and lungs. My letters continue, even if less frequently, and Brian and I have a relationship that only the term ‘best friends’ can describe. To celebrate Brian’s recovery –(only 10 per cent with his prognosis survive)we wanted to tell our story and The Listening Project seemed the perfect place to do this. We contacted the BBC and were invited to join its recording booth in St Catherine’s Hospice car park in Crawley. They recorded us talking about the letters, our friendship and how our lives have changed; the letters encouraged me to pursue an MA in Creative Writing, have some short stories published and write a novel, while Brian began a health and wellbeing blog, BeingBryan, aimed at men over 50. At the end of the recording the BBC production staff were so enthusiastic about our story, they said everyone should hear it.
When I return home from Sussex there is an email from a man who has contacted me through my Alison Hitchcock Writer website. He says he’s noted that I began my writing life with the letters I wrote to Brian and wonders if he can ‘steal’ my idea as he has just heard that a friend of his has received a cancer diagnosis. I am surprised and flattered and email back immediately encouraging him to write. But a week later he contacts me again to say he is finding it difficult to write that first letter; he doesn’t know what to say. And there the idea struck – let’s inspire people to write letters to friends with cancer. And as soon as we’d had that first idea, we had another – let’s not just inspire people to write, let’s help them to actually do it.
So Brian and I set up ‘From Me to You’ in October 2016, and we set off on our mission to help people understand that something
as simple as sending a letter or card will make a huge difference to someone suffering from cancer.
We speak at events and festivals and have a website which hosts letter writing tips and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters. We run letter writing workshops in London and the South East, where people address their feelings of helplessness, overcome fears and guilt, and move on to put pen to paper. We provide the stationery, the stamps and the inspiration – all people need to bring along is a desire to connect with their loved ones.
At the workshops, letters have been written to colleagues who have been away from work for extended periods, friends who have not been seen for months, and family members who are seen often but can still be cheered by letter. And people haven’t just written one letter or card, although one is fine, they have continued to use it as their way to keep connected. We do warn people, however, not to necessarily expect a reply. For the 100 letters that I wrote to Brian, I didn’t get one back. And while we joke about this point, it is important, no-one should feel obliged.
The response to ‘From Me to You’ has been overwhelming. At first, a few people were sceptical, imagining no-one wrote a letter anymore or even put a card into a postbox, but they are wrong. People contact us almost every day to tell us they have written to a friend or they have received something through the post which has brightened their day. And many other people tell us it’s such an obvious idea they can’t believe someone hasn’t thought to do it before. But sometimes the best ideas can come from the most unexpected of places; without a conversation in a Sussex car park I’m not sure ‘From Me to You’ would ever have existed.