SHORTCUTS – 15 minutes with author Henry Scowcroft
August 20, 2021. Series 4. Episode 31
Henry Scowcroft is an award-winning science writer for Cancer Research UK. In 2016, his girlfriend of six years, Zarah Harrison was diagnosed with an aggressive stage four tumour. After a short and brave battle she sadly passed away, with Henry by her side, just as he had been throughout her treatment.
Struggling to cope and with a need to understand what had happened, Henry channelled his grief into writing ‘Cross Everything’ – a book which documents both his personal relationship with Zarah and her illness but also their struggle to understand and come to terms with her cancer.
The result was a memoir and manual that has been described as the most emotional textbook you will read.
In this shortcuts episode, Henry explains how, through his writing, he was able to provide a powerful legacy for Zarah – and a guide for others who face a similar challenge. It is a detailed and deeply moving conversation about grief, making sense of the unfathomable nature of cancer and recovery.
Henry’s Crisis Cures:
1 – To carve out time for myself and make sure I’m looking after myself so I can be as helpful to the people around me as I can.
2 – Not getting caught up in the shoulda’ woulda’ coulda’ – there’s always a way to look back at the way you ended up in a situation you’re in and think, ‘if only I’d done X, if only I’d done Y, I wouldn’t be here. But the fact is, you are where you are. You’re here now. Look forward, not backwards. Focus on the horizon and not over your shoulder.
3 – Music – Particularly the guitar which I’ve always loved playing. I play in a band to this day. I love listening to music – it’s so powerful at being able to get your head in a different space to where it is. If you want to weep then music is incredibly good at taking you into that zone. It was especially important when Zarah died.
Crisis Track David Crosby – Traction in the Rain.
Speaking with Henry Scowcroft was nothing short of a complete privilege. He is a man who has spent much of his adult life communicating the work of Cancer Research UK to a wider public
Armed with his professional understanding of the disease, the unenviable task fell to him throughout her treatment to communicate details to her family, friends and even with Zarah herself. Following Zarah’s death, whilst struggling to cope with his overwhelming loss, Henry decided to use the emails and notes he had accumulated to bring a more comprehensive understanding of the disease, not realising that in doing so, he was processing his grief, as he says, quite literally putting it between two covers and placing it on the shelf.
He speaks of the importance of humour, calling out the absurdities of life and sometimes giving in to the laughter. He is careful not to allow any regrets he has to take a hold, knowing that for the most part, the end result would remain the same.
This is a powerful and very human story – it’s a story of bravery, loss and one of great sadness but it is also one which champions the power of hope and as Henry rightly says – hope is probably the most important thing we have. My thanks to him for sharing his story.
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Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.06 Andy Coulson:
Crisis Shortcuts is brought to you by Myndstream, music designed to help you, your loved ones and even your pets feel calmer. Check out Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y on all the usual streaming platforms. Welcome to Crisis Shortcuts with me, Andy Coulson. Occasional bonus episodes to sit neatly alongside the main podcast, Crisis What Crisis? Much like those longer conversations, in Shortcuts you’ll hear from brilliant people who, in their own words, tell us about their crises, how they got through them and what they’ve learned.
00:00:51.10 Andy Coulson:
Although these episodes are brief believe me the insights are just as big. So if you’re short on time but looking for inspiration or guidance, Crisis Shortcuts will offer a quick fix of useful lessons from those who’ve been there and lived to tell the tale. And don’t forget you can still join me for our longer conversations on Crisis What Crisis? where we talk in greater depth and share those powerful coping strategies that will hopefully help you guide through the pitfalls in life. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is @crisishwhatcrisispodcast and if you like what you hear please do head over to Apple and leave us a rating and a review. It really helps make sure these stories get to the widest possible audience. I hope you enjoy this Crisis Shortcut.
00:01:37.22 Andy Coulson:
In this bonus episode you’ll hear from Henry Scowcroft, author of the moving and insightful book, Cross Everything. Henry has worked for over thirteen years at Cancer Research UK communicating the complex and the emotive issues around cancer. But it was when Henry’s fiancé, Zara, was diagnosed with an aggressive bladder tumour that what had been a professional focus suddenly became fundamental and traumatic. Henry journaled throughout Zara’s battle and the result is a book that seeks to explain the science around cancer and also the process that patients’ face here in the UK. But it is also a beautifully written eloquent memoir and a powerful legacy to Zara who sadly died in October 2016 aged just thirty-seven. My sincere thanks to Henry for sharing his story with us, you can find a link to Cross Everything in the notes for the episode and I really would urge you to get a copy.
00:02:39.17 Henry Scowcroft:
I’m Henry Scowcroft, I’m a science writer. After ten years of working for Cancer Research UK my partner was diagnosed with, and died from, cancer in 2016. I was born in London in 1977, I went to school in London. I developed a fascination for science so I went to university to study biochemistry. So by 2010 I’d been working for Cancer Research UK for seven years, enjoying London life. One day at a music festival one of my friends, James actually, introduced me to Zara. We instantly hit it off and felt like we’d met someone that we were going to spend the rest of our lives with each other.
00:03:19.24 Henry Scowcroft:
2016 starts and Zara, at this point, for a few months had been having recurring urinary tract infections. And she’d had them throughout her whole life but they seemed to be getting particularly bad at that point. And she phoned me from Cork and said, ‘Look this is really not right’. They ended up seeing her in A&E and she had blood in her urine by this point and was really quite worried. The next day they did a cystoscopy, which is a camera inserted into her bladder, and said pretty much there and then this is a cancer. She was transferred to UCLH, University College London Hospital, and they do another CT scan and put her under general anaesthetic and take the thing out and find that it’s at stage four, advanced cancer. It’s penetrated through the bladder into her pelvis, it’s already in the lymph nodes and their diagnosis was that there was basically nothing that could be done to cure this. It was just one of those things that just absolutely came out of the blue. And just trying to just suddenly going into crisis mode basically.
00:04:25.15 Henry Scowcroft:
I think both of us had a fairly daft and somewhat off-piste sense of humour and somewhat inappropriate at the times. So one of the ways we dealt with cancer was to, not make joke of it, but to revel in the ridiculousness of some of the situations we found ourselves in. She named her tumour Tina, after Tina Tumour her private cancer. There were all sorts of ridiculous moments that were our way of contextualising and understanding and framing it in a way that we could understand. I wanted to try and make sense of what was happening to Zara through the prism of my own understanding of cancer. There were all sorts of ways in which we tried to cope with this and the way that led to the book was that I found it incredibly therapeutic to sit down and write.
00:05:22.02 Henry Scowcroft:
A thing that happens after you’re told that you cancer, or that your loved one has cancer, is you then need to go and tell everyone else about it and keep everyone else up to speed with what’s going on. So I brought together the emails that I would put together to keep everyone abreast of Zara’s journey through all of this and Zara’s progress and my love of writing. And these emails became things that I would put a lot of time and care into to try and help other people understand. But also what I didn’t realise I was doing at the time was I trying to help myself understand and I was trying to organise my thoughts and organise what had just happened so that I could keen sane and be the best carer I possibly could to Zara.
00:06:06.09 Henry Scowcroft:
The thing that was sort of the trickiest bit of the book was, but also the thing that I was determined to get right, was this idea of trying to fuse the human story with the scientific story. Because when I finally decided I was definitely going to write this book, the unique angle I thought I would be able to bring to it was this idea of this dual understanding; understanding why cancer’s so shit is because of the biology but understanding cancer’s biology is what makes it so shit. If I could try and write something that brought those two worlds together, so that the people who knew the science would get an understanding of what it’s like to go through it, and the people whose relationship to cancer is going through it, could be brought into some of the science in a way that wasn’t just a dry didactic textbook. I wanted to try and stick some emotion in it and a colleague of mine who read the book fairly early on said that she felt it was like the most emotional text book she’d ever read.
00:07:08.01 Henry Scowcroft:
I spent quite a lot of time thinking about how to make sure… I mean one of the things that I wanted to do with the book was to try and convey as much of who Zara was as a person and to, if you like, create a record of her as a person. The injection of humour at times, I mean, that’s kind of how I live my life anyway, is that I do find the ridiculous funny. And that the world that we live in is bizarre and weird and so many of the things that are awful about it are also absurd and I love highlighting that absurdity. And I think that, I hope that sort of came through in the book, the absurdity, not just of cancer, but the way society deals with cancer. And sometimes the voice on the phone that asks you, when you’re trying to get a refund for your ticket, ‘is the illness serious or is it terminal?’ And you sort of think, well what does serious mean then? And it just… these things they are sort of, it’s all about the cliche and if you didn’t laugh you’d cry and there were so many moments of that where the only real sensible reaction to it was to just piss yourself laughing.
00:08:19.02 Henry Scowcroft:
The treatment for bladder cancer has moved on just in the four years since Zara died. It’s moved on massively. If she were alive today she would have access to a lot more options and in the position was in back in 2016 I knew that was likely to be the case. So there was an additional sort of tragedy within this which was not just the diagnosis she had but the point in history that she had it. Because if she’d been diagnosed a few, three or four years later, things would have been, not substantially different but the outcome probably would have been the same, but the number of treatment options she would have been able to have, rather than just chemotherapy would have been different.
00:08:56.14 Henry Scowcroft:
Regret’s a funny thing because I think you can let it eat you up and I’ve been really determined not to do that. Partly because the regrets I do have were not things that would have changed things massively. Not being at her bedside when the oncologist gave her the news she was going to die will always haunt me. But that wouldn’t have changed the fact that she was going to die I just would have been there for her in a way that I had been all the way through up until that point but for whatever reason I wasn’t able to be there on that one appointment. So that I will always think, I wish that would have been different. Doing everything you can to try and think your way round it and past it because it gets you stuck if you are looking backwards all the time. And I’ve tried, since Zara died and my life has moved on massively since 2016, not living in past and writing the book was very much, for me, about putting everything to bed and putting it altogether in one thing and literally getting closure with it. Literally having a front cover and a back cover and being able to put it on the bookshelf and get on with my life.
00:10:10.15 Henry Scowcroft:
I think the me that returns to work at Cancer Research UK in 2018 was a very different me with a very different agenda. I think I appreciated that while I still fervently believed that the solution to making progress in cancer is medical research, the things that we choose to research I think I have a slightly different sense of what are the priorities. I think things like lymphoedema, things like pain management, things like controlling side effects, the living with cancer and the living beyond the cancer agenda is something I’d never really connected with. Cancer Research UK for very solid and sound reasons takes a focus very much on trying to extend the survival for cancer. And it’s doing a brilliant job of that.
00:10:58.15 Henry Scowcroft:
I think we’re entering into a phase now where more and more people are living longer with cancer. And I think that the future is going to look like making sure those people are living well with cancer rather than just living with it. When I’m looking at copywriting copy for the charity now I do have a very different framing of it all which is very much from the person rather than the tumour. Ironically that I wrote the book partly from the point of view of the tumour.
00:11:24.12 Henry Scowcroft:
The aftermath of losing someone and the crisis that comes with it is, I don’t know, it’s difficult to put it into words. The first phase was just pure out and out exhaustion and I just curled up into a ball and slept for a couple of weeks. And I kind of remember very little of that. I think then slowly starting to uncurl, both like physically and metaphorically, I would just start to reach out into the world and go out a bit and hang out with people. I still find it very exhausting and bail out early on evenings and just come back to go to bed. Not because I was upset or emotional, just because I was exhausted.
00:12:01.00 Henry Scowcroft:
There’s this wonderful post on Reddit, which I quote in the book, which talks about just being buffeted by waves and being submerged and feeling like you’re drowning and having to come up for air. And the first phase of it is just repeatedly surfacing and repeatedly feeling like you’ve got ten minutes of normal until the next wave hits. And then gradually the waves come less and less often and they lessen in intensity. But you start, not letting your guard down, but after a while you think, oh hang on, I feel kind of alright there. And then suddenly you turn around a wave hits you full in the face without expecting it. But it think that sort of that feeling like you’re bobbing around in an ocean and every now and again being slapped in the face by a wave, that persisted for a long time. And I feel one of the things was that I would go away, out of the UK for a while and whenever I came back I felt like I’d moved on a bit. You get back to normal gradually but that first… it’s basically like curling up like a tiny little nut and then slowly just slowly being able to relax into the world.
00:13:04.01 Henry Scowcroft:
I think the counselling I had was absolutely… like I would not be able to function if I hadn’t had that. And my counsellor, Steve, is… I have him on the tallest pedestal possible. He talked to me… he let me process it but he led me through it. And I think for anyone that’s sceptical about bereavement counselling and the usefulness of it, I just encourage them to just go with it and go with the grain and find out what it’s about. I just cannot speak highly enough for that process and that process of holding someone’s hand while they themselves process and guiding them through. And that’s what it felt like. It brought me through the darkest period of my life.
00:13:52.21 Henry Scowcroft:
It took a while to re-establish myself and become normal again but I was lucky enough, a few years after Zara died, that I met Hannah and Hannah and I have been together for three or four years now and it feels like this is an entirely new chapter in my life and that the previous chapter is behind me. And Hannah and I, eight weeks ago welcomed Robin into the world, our little son, who is just amazing. And life now is a very different and wonderful place. And just being able to just being able to say that out loud and being able to be in the future, rather than looking back in the past, is just wonderful. And the writing of the book was a process that I had to go through to get to where I am now which is a really, really happy.
00:14:44.22 Henry Scowcroft:
I think the thing that came out in the book, which is essentially a book about two people dying, Zara and her friend Annabelle, but also it is a book about the hope that carried, certainly carried me though all of that and out the other side. I think hope is such a delicate balance because there’s false hope and it’s very difficult to know what your hope is except with retrospect. But hope is, I think it is possibly the most important thing. I think it’s what, certainly keeps me coming to work every day at Cancer Research UK, this idea that as well as creating new knowledge about cancer, we’re creating hope for people. And I don’t know where we would be without hope.
00:15:30.00 Henry Scowcroft:
And I think this has kept all of going through the last sixteen months, you know, the hope that the pandemic would be over and we can get back to something normal or new normal as people like to say. But I think hope is, I think it’s the dominant theme of the book, it’s the way I’ve always approached stuff, is to kind of just cross your fingers and hope things will come out alright. And sometimes they don’t but then you keep going and they do.
00:15:57.22 Henry Scowcroft:
My first crisis cure is to carve out time for myself and to make sure that I’m looking after myself so that I can be as helpful to the people around me as I can. And I think in Zara’s case it was making sure that I was able to support her as well as I could by making sure that I wasn’t constantly trying to be somewhere else. You know, making sure that I was fed and watered and well-rested and carved out time for the emails and the writing and just make sure that I’m able to be the best person for those around me as I possibly can.
00:16:35.13 Henry Scowcroft:
My second crisis cure is not to get caught in the ‘could-a, should’a, would’a’. There’s always a way to look back at the way you ended up in the situation you’re in and think if only I’d done X, if only I’d done Y, then I wouldn’t be here. But the fact is you are where you are, you’re here now, look forward, don’t look backwards and try and just keep focused on, even if it’s only a little bit on the horizon, try and keep focused on where you’re going rather than looking over your shoulder.
00:17:09.03 Henry Scowcroft:
My third crisis cure is music and particularly my guitar. I think I’ve always loved playing the guitar I play in a band to this day. I love listening to music and I think music is so powerful at being able to get your head in a different space than where it is. And if that’s that you want to have a weep, then music is incredibly good at taking you into that zone. When you’ve just lost someone maybe steer clear of music with any lyrics whatsoever. Because whatever they’re going to be, they’re going to set you off. But I think music is such a huge part of my life and being able to use music to rescue me out of certain situations or to take me into certain situations is something that I’ve always been able to do and it was especially important after Zara died.
00:18:02.14 Henry Scowcroft:
Which brings me to my crisis track which is by David Crosby. It’s a track called Traction in the Rain. It’s from an album that I came across while I was travelling across America to a small cabin where I was going to start writing Cross Everything. And my friend Kieran pointed me int he direction of the album. I stayed with him in America before I set off on a long train journey. And it was an album that I just fell in love with over the course of getting the train across America. And I finally end up in a cabin where there was a guitar so I learnt to play some of the tracks on it. This track in particular really stuck with me. And it was only after I’d got really into this album that I looked up why David Crosby wrote it. He lost it because he lost his girlfriend in an accident and the fact that the album is infused with grief but also looking forward and this extraordinary track just means a lot to me.
00:19:22.14 End of transcription