How Lancashire born author Catherine Simpson's cancer diagnosis prompted creation of new book One Body: A retrospective

Author and Lancastrian Catherine Simpson has won much acclaim for books she wrote about close to home subjects.

By Fiona Finch
Friday, 17th June 2022, 12:30 pm

The 58-year-old, who was brought up an farm near Garstang, has in the past written a moving memoir about the suicide of her sister Tricia and a novel, Truestory, which features a boy with Asperger syndrome and his farming family from Lancashire.

The novel was inspired in part by the experience of bringing up her daughter Nina who is autistic.

Now she has turned her scrutiny to a topic many people would flinch at sharing – her experience of breast cancer.

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Author Catherine Simpson

In a brave and bold autobiographical account entitled ‘One Body: A retrospective’ Catherine does not spare the details of her fear or the impact of treatment. She also widens the scope of this often searing and thought provoking account to take a wider look at what growing up female meant for her.

Catherine said: “I wanted to write this book because when I was diagnosed with cancer I wanted to find the right book to read and I couldn’t find it, so I thought I would write it.”

Her intention was, she said: “to have an account I feel is completely honest, not sugar coated.”

Catherine, pictured recently at the Festival Queen reunion marking the 150th anniversary of Garstang and District Children's Festival. Catherine was Queen in 1975. Photo:Martin Bostock

She continued: "I found quite a lot of accounts were written a long time after the event, by such time you’ve got things very much into perspective and you begin to forget how terrifying it was. I wanted to write an honest account of somebody going through it in real time.”

Catherine, a journalist and mother of two whose home is now in Edinburgh, found the writing therapeutic. She was diagnosed in 2018 and said: “It was very, very helpful to be able to pour all this experience on to the page. I know it helped me deal with the terror as the days went by. The accounts of the cancer were written as it was happening and then I came back later and put in alternate chapters about the past.

“I realised as I was going through this experience it was bringing about all kinds of memories about my body, things that concern what it had been like to grow up and grow old in this body. It’s really about what it was to grow up and grow old in a woman’s body in a time and place I did, in the 1960s and 1970s in Lancashire.”

Experiences ranging from developing breasts and period pain to having an abortion, post-natal depression, early menopause, the discomfort of underwired bras and choices about body hair removal and tanning are recounted, all with the same distinctive and unflinching honesty and clarity. She writes eloquently of the difficulties of telling her children about her diagnosis and the trauma it caused her husband Cello.

Part of the cover of Catherine's new book One Body

Her hope is that the book is therapeutic for others: “I really hope that if anyone is going through that experience that I can hold their hands through it.”

Delighted that both younger and older readers have told her that her new book resonates with them she said: “It takes an awful long time to write a book and you don’t know if anybody is going to read it….When they contact you and say thank you for writing it it feels like you’ve turned a terrible situation into something positive. It’s writing about an experience that can make other people feel less alone.”

Catherine was raised in Winmarleigh and attended Garstang High School and has returned to the area frequently over the years, most recently a few weeks ago, for the Garstang Children’s (formerly Whitsuntide) festival when she walked in the parade with past Festival Queens. She is particularly pleased that her latest book is published by a north west based publisher – Saraband of Salford.

If writing the book and her treatment prompted many recollections it also forced her to look forward too and acknowledge some uncomfortable truths. She reflects that sadly “casual sexism” is ”part of society’s always been there, it was more blatant in the 1970s but is still there now. Things haven’t changed much for my daughters in a lot of ways.”

Catherine pictured in 1975 being crowned on her royal day as Festival/Rose Queen at the Whitsuntide celebration which later became known as Garstang Children's Festival

It has been two years since Catherine finished her treatment and now she returns to hospital for annual check ups. She said: ”They’re a bit hard –it’s waiting for the results again.There’s been no evidence of disease since and fingers crossed that’s the way it will remain. I feel feel incredibly lucky.”

It has, she said, changed her outlook considerably: “It took me quite a while to get any energy back at all. I’m thankful for every new experience I get. I’m very aware of my own mortality, but rather than that being a bad thing now I think it is a good thing. It’s making me do things I might have put off in the past. I don’t put things off now – (like) wanting to travel. I want to go and see a particular place? Rather than think do it next year, no, I’ll do it now.”

She details how she is aware too of the joys to be had in savouring the smallest of pleasures in life: “the bunch of flowers, the cup of coffee, a delicious cake...really savour it, live in the moment” and, as her book makes clear, there is joy in recognising the many things to have gratitude for, including her body.

One Body: A retrospective is published by Salford based publisher Saraband at £9.99.When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family Who Never Spoke is published by 4th Estate in paperback at £9.99 (hardback £14.99).Truestory is published by Sandstone Press at £8.99.See our report on how the public helped Catherine through a difficult year