Joanna Munro


Joanna has lived in Bristol, Brazil, California and Hong Kong and is now based in London. After working in Finance for twenty-five years, she started memoir writing two years ago.

She is currently a student on the Goldsmiths Masters in Creative and Life Writing and is working on a family memoir about mental illness. When she runs out of memoir ideas, Joanna is going to write a series of finance- based detective novels featuring a witty female protagonist, married with two children and living in North London, who writes prize-winning literary fiction in her spare time. 


View as PDF: Joanna Munro - Cancer Week

Cancer Week

Cancer Week’ is a memoir piece that stands on its own and is also part of a longer work, Cancer Time.



I’m alone in my Shanghai Shangri-La hotel room, propped up on Egyptian Cotton pillows, writing lists on my iPad. It’s two in the morning, so technically it’s already Tuesday.

Obviously the family will need to be there – so that’s all of mine and Richard’s including the nieces - and then my dad’s got quite a lot of family if we count his wife and all her relations. So let’s say eighteen.

Friends – Helena will probably come over from the States and then in London I’ve got Jane, Emma, Melanie and Rebecca. And there are the Highgate parents, mainly the ones from Arthur’s class, because we’re all much more friendly in the Juniors than the Seniors – let’s say twelve of those, probably just the mums, not the dads.

And then work. I’m not popular with everyone and if it’s a weekday it might be hard for them to get away, but let’s say we get twenty from the bank. Then there are the people I’ve kept in touch with from AXA.

It doesn’t add up to that many – it’s more than fifty, less than a hundred.

But this is the problem: Richard is completely crap at organising big events – holidays yes, parties no. He’ll only invite the friends he likes. He’ll forget to ask the people from my work and if he does remember them, he’ll have booked a venue somewhere inaccessible.

If you want people to come, you’ve got to make it easy for them. I’m assuming we’ll be back in London and so it would be best if we could get somewhere that’s actually on Piccadilly. It’s one thing if the funeral benches are empty when you pop your clogs at ninety, but I’m only fifty. I’m in my prime. The church should be full, standing room only, people spilling out of the doors and into the street outside. It ought to be a hot ticket.


Ever since our family moved out to Hong Kong last year, I’ve been grumbling about the time difference. I have to take part in these global calls that start at eight o’clock on a Friday evening and I can tell that, while I’m stifling yawns, the London participants are all busy tucking into their ‘working lunch’. I can hear them crunching their crisps. And just as we’re finally finishing off with ‘any other business’, some conscientious London-based attendee will say something like: ‘I’d like us to take a moment to reflect on our service provider relationships.’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘No, let’s not take a moment to reflect because it’s completely irrelevant, it wasn’t on the agenda, this call was only scheduled to last three hours, it’s already half past eleven and I want to go to bed.’ But the eight hour time difference is handy when it’s the small hours and you’re not sleeping, because in Crouch End they’re all still awake.

So I email my most organised friend, Melanie, to ask if she’ll organise the funeral and get an answer in a matter of minutes:

‘There isn’t going to be a funeral. It’s just a lump. They’ll whip it out, give you a bit of radio and you’ll be good as new. Stop fussing and go to sleep. Mx’

But I don’t sleep because there’s a video of the funeral playing in my mind. The boys have obviously been practising hard in my final months because they’ve leap-frogged a few music grades and are playing Bach cello suites as the congregation assembles. But more surprising than that, my gothic friend Jane seems to have shown up in a white linen trouser suit.


It was only a few days since we’d found the lump and I’d been referred for tests. But then I’d got the all clear on Friday – I was fine.

All weekend I’d been jubilant – so grateful to be well, planning to turn over a new leaf, cut down on drinking, crank up my fitness regime and make a proper effort to learn Mandarin. And then, first thing that Monday, I’d picked up a voicemail from my doctor saying he thought I should get a second opinion and leaving me the number for a Dr Li.

Richard met me in the Medical Centre reception, just a few doors down from my office building. Dr Li’s room was empty except for a desk with a flat screen monitor and two metal-framed chairs. No photos, no pictures, no papers on either the desk or the walls.

Dr Li grinned at us. He had a helmet of black hair and a blue suit that glowed. He looked about twelve but he was probably in his early forties. He couldn’t stop smiling and I noticed how out of line his top canines were.

‘So the mammogram and ultrasound you had on Friday found nothing. But there is a lump in your left breast – how big?’

‘Pea-sized,’ I said.

‘Walnut-sized,’ Richard said.

After another ultrasound, Dr Li did a biopsy on the lump and told us to come back for the results on Wednesday.

As we were gathering our stuff to leave, I said:

‘You saw the lump - do you have an idea whether it’s malignant or not?’

Dr Li led us back to the little room and gestured to us to sit down. He steepled his fingers under his chin.

‘I believe it is malignant. And I can tell you now, you will need to prepare yourself for an operation. A big operation. But do not worry - I will be your surgeon.’

And he smiled. 


I was supposed to be heading to the airport after the appointment but I couldn’t stop crying for long enough to go into the office and fetch my bag. So Richard and I sat under a tree in Hong Kong Park and waited for me to pull myself together.

Sap from the tree was dripping onto the skirt of my dress. Richard squeezed my hand so tightly I thought he might break it.

‘I don’t want to die,’ I said, snot joining the waterfall of tears. ‘And I don’t want an operation. I hate hospitals. You know I hate hospitals. And I don’t want some twelve year old pop-up surgeon who can’t even fix his own teeth messing about with me. It’s not fair.’

I scrabbled in my bag for more tissues but I couldn’t see what I was doing. Richard found a packet of Kleenex and wiped my nose.

‘What I don’t understand is, that I had that all-clear. How can one doctor tell me I’ve got to have a big operation only three days after another doctor told me they’d checked me and I was fine?

‘I ought to sue someone. That’s such incompetence isn’t it? And I paid for those tests on Friday, I paid for that ultrasound where he totally missed the lump. And what did you mean, saying it was walnut-sized?’

Richard looked at me with this expression I didn’t think I’d ever seen before – a sort of pained sympathy.

‘It is walnut-sized. I’m a scientist.’

‘I’m going to make a complaint – they ought to be struck off.’

But really I was wishing that it was like it was with holidays, where you could complain and when you spoke to the hotel manager they could put it all right and give you a Junior Suite for the rest of your stay to make up for putting you in a Smoking Room on your first night. It ought to have been like that.


I get home around seven and Richard gives me an enormous, squeezing hug as I walk through the door. I’d done the Shanghai board meeting in the morning and the lunch afterwards but then I’d pleaded off the afternoon meetings and got my assistant, Rosita, to put me on an earlier flight back to Hong Kong. I wanted to go home and hug my boys.

I liked the idea that I was this stoic person who’d carried on and shown up for the board, even though I’d had this awful news. But the truth was, I had to pass the time somehow and it was good to have things I had to do. During the board meeting, I’d had to concentrate so hard, what with the inadequate simultaneous translation and the ramblings of some of the other directors, that I really had, for a couple of hours, completely forgotten that I probably had cancer.

I expect the boys to come rushing towards me but of course they don’t know anything’s changed. Thirteen year old William is practising for his school band performance, playing something that I keep calling ‘Super Wombat’ on the piano but is actually apparently ‘Mardy Bum’. Richard says Arthur’s downstairs playing Lego Harry Potter on the PS3.

‘Did you bring us anything from Shanghai?’ William asks, enduring my hug.

I’d pocketed a couple of handfuls the mini chocolate bars we got for board meeting snacks but that was all.


We eat supper outside on the terrace. May’s one of the few months when it’s pleasant out there and Richard has cooked us a Korean barbecue. Then we shoo the boys off to bed but William stands in the kitchen doorway with his arms folded, glaring at me:

‘You know I don’t go to bed at 9 any more. I go to bed at 9.30. And I never go to bed at the same time as Arthur – if he’s going now that means I get to stay up for at least another hour.’

‘William, why do you have to argue all the time?’ Richard says.

‘I don’t argue all the time. It’s just that she made an agreement and she’s breaking it. I’m right, aren’t it? It’s just like my pocket money – how much does she owe me? She never remembers.’

‘William, just go. Just for tonight,’ I say.

Once he’s gone, I check the door to the house is shut and pour us both another glass of wine.

‘So how’s your day been?’ I ask.

‘Don’t go on the internet. There’s all sorts of nasty stuff if you go on the internet.’

‘Why do you think Dr Li said a big operation? It was just one lump on the ultrasound, wasn’t it? There wasn’t anything else.’ In retrospect, this is the bit of the Dr Li conversation that jumps out at me.

‘I don’t think so. But there’s no point you speculating. We need to wait for the biopsy result.’

I drain the glass and Richard fetches another bottle.

‘I don’t want a mastectomy. I don’t want bits of me lopped off.’

Richard puts his hand over mine. He’s made the terrace very nice, with decking and a little fountain in the corner.

We’ve been married for almost twenty-five years and we’ve never been much into holding hands but that seems to be something we do now.


I make an effort to get home early. Richard’s cooking bo lalot. It’s Vietnamese - beef wrapped in lalot leaves and he picks the lalot leaves down at Chung Hom Kok beach. It’s another one of my favourite meals. Today is a good day – I’ve had another reprieve.

‘Why don’t we all play a board game while the barbecue’s heating up?’ I say.

William looks at me, mystified.

‘What board game?’

‘I don’t know. Monopoly. Scrabble. Or we could play cards?’

Richard cajoles them into starting Monopoly – we’ve got a Hong Kong version so there’s some novelty in that.

The boys and Richard keep singing odd lines from something.

‘I was the mad one,’ Arthur sings, quavering.

‘And I was the fat one,’ William sings.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s the Four Georges song. Don’t you know it? From Horrible Histories,’ Arthur says.

‘Oh yes, I do know it.’

‘No, you don’t. Don’t pretend you do,’ William says. ‘We’ve all seen it, we know what the song is but you don’t because you never watch Horrible Histories with us.’

‘That’s because Mummy’s busy at work,’ Richard says. ‘Come on, William, it’s your turn to roll.’

‘It’s not because she’s busy with work – it’s because when she is here she’s on her blackberry and when she’s not on her blackberry, she’s drinking wine and falling asleep. She doesn’t listen to anything we say.’

‘That’s a bit harsh,’ I say.

‘Don’t be mean to Mummy,’ Richard says, but I catch him and William exchanging looks.


The 10am meeting with Dr Li had been in a different place – not the Medical Centre but a sleazier building near Hong Kong station. The reception room was tiny and smelled of toilet cleaner, and then the receptionist ushered us into an even tinier room with a peeling laminate desk.

Richard and I were holding hands again as Dr Li wafted a sheet of paper in front of us.

‘Technically the biopsy was inconclusive.’ He had the nerve to sound disappointed but quickly rallied: ‘You need this surgery and I can schedule the operation for Thursday.’

‘Let me see that, please.’

I scanned the page quickly, my heart thumping. They hadn’t found anything at all from the biopsy – the recommendation was a follow up in six months time.

I waved the report at Dr Li. I was buzzing.

‘It says there’s no evidence of malignancy. The lump’s benign.’

Dr Li looked down at the table and was silent for a moment. Then he looked straight at me and he wasn’t smiling:

‘You need a radical mastectomy.’ He turned to Richard: ‘Please tell your wife, she needs a mastectomy.’

No way was I signing up to any sort of mastectomy – there was absolutely no evidence that I had cancer.

Dr Li sighed.

‘If you don’t trust me, we’ll arrange an MRI for tomorrow. You’ll see everything in that. You’ll see that I’m right.’

I hated Dr Li for his surgical enthusiasm. He just wanted the work. No-one was doing anything to me. I agreed to the MRI because at least that would sort this out once and for all and then I’d be able to tell Dr Li exactly what I thought of him and his dishonourable touting for business.


It’s eight o’clock and I haven’t had a call about the MRI results so I go up to our bedroom and dial Dr Li’s number.

I can hear the triumph in his voice the instant he starts speaking:

'You have many, many malignancies in your breast. It’s what we call a multifocal presentation.’ I’m to imagine my left breast as a clock: ‘There are tumours at two o'clock, four o'clock, six o'clock - that is the mass you can feel - but also ten o'clock and eleven o'clock. We need to remove the entire breast as soon as possible.’

I’m to see him tomorrow – back at the Medical Centre – to arrange for the surgery.

I’m thinking of the Prisoner of Askaban and how they used Hermione’s time turner to go back and save Buckbeak. I want it to be ten to eight again. I want not to have made the call and then I want to call Dr Li again and have him say I’m fine.

I obviously don’t want the boys to know anything is up, so I go out onto the landing and call down to Richard. My voice sounds like an echo.

There’s chilli hanging in the air – Richard’s making a Thai curry for supper – chicken with red and yellow peppers.

He runs up the stairs two at a time but he’s seen my face before he reaches me. I shake my head and this new voice comes out which is much smaller than I'd expected:

‘It's not good. It's everywhere.'

Richard’s face changes colour in front of my eyes - his freckles stand out on skin that looks almost greenish.

'But .. ' he bites his lip. 'But you look so well.'

My chin collides with his shoulder as he pulls me towards him. William calls from downstairs:

'Are we putting Return of the King on or not?'

'Oh, our poor boys!' I croak and start blubbing.


Scheduling the MRI scan had been a pain because they could only fit me in at 2.45pm and that was at the Hong Kong Sanatorium which was up in Happy Valley. If there was any delay I’d have difficulty getting back for the four o’clock board and I wasn’t just an attendee there, I had a report I had to present.

I got a feeling things weren’t looking good when the MRI scan went on and on. First I was facing up, then down with my tits hanging through two holes in a metal frame; we did everything once with something injected into my hand and once without. Everyone was very kind to me but I’d got far too hot, because the MRI machine itself was hot and then they’d piled all these blankets on top of me.

Usually I’d have said something. It’s not like me to be shy about speaking up. And so I hadn’t just missed the beginning of the board, I’d missed it all.


After supper, Arthur sits on the sofa with his headphones on, tapping away on his laptop – he’s on Runescape, using my account because he’s too young to have his own.

‘Arthur my darling, can you do your Panini dance for me?’

Arthur has a funny little routine he invented - I’ve no idea where it comes from - where he walks away from you with five slow, heavy steps and then spins round to face you, throwing out his arms and shouting: ‘Panini’. It always cheers me up.

‘When I’ve finished this,’ Arthur mumbles, eyes still glued to the screen.

Richard looks up from his laptop.

‘Do as Mummy says, right now,’ he bellows, surprising all four of us, and Arthur bursts into tears. Then he gets up and does the Panini dance but his eyes are still red and it’s lacking his usual panache.


'I’ve decided to go back to London,' I say.

Lois and I are sitting in squashy black leather chairs at one end of the long mahogany table in Room G on floor 12 of our building. A good friend had put the two of us in touch that morning, after I’d come back howling from the horrible, horrible meeting with Dr Li.

Steam rises from our jasmine tea and the circular metal vents in the floor blast cold air at me. I'm shivering but of course it has nothing to do with the air con. Just over a week ago, I’d been at a working group meeting in this same windowless, wood-panelled room. My voice had been fine then. I’d been fine.


I’d hardly slept after the MRI result. I kept waking in a sweat, heart racing, panicking. Richard always sleeps well but he’d told me to wake him if I wanted to, so I did, it must have been eight or nine times.

The last time had been at about four. My teeth were chattering and I squealed: ‘I don’t want to die. Dying’s horrible. It’s not fair.’

Richard rolled toward me, squeezed me tight and mumbled:

‘Sleep’s good. Sleep helps. Please try and sleep.’


Lois puts her teacup back in its saucer and takes my hands.

'Oh, look at you - look at your little hands trembling. Come on, let me give you a hug.’

Lois is stocky with thick toffee-coloured hair and a slightly furry face. I'm embarrassed when she hugs me because I don’t like the way I smell now – it seems like a sour, ill-person’s smell. But I rest my head on her shoulder and it is comforting. She pats my back. As well as the hand holding with Richard, there’s been a lot of back patting going on this week.

'If you really want to go back to London, I’m sure the bank will make it happen. But you should think about staying in Hong Kong for your treatment – I’m told it’s the breast cancer capital of the world. Who’s your surgeon?'


That morning’s appointment with Dr Li had been grim. We were back in the Medical Centre but in a different identical room. I’d lost my mojo, I wasn’t fighting him any more. We said yes to everything. His nurse was going to call me to arrange some further tests, I was booked in for the operation on Thursday and the one thing we’d insisted on - Richard did this bit for me - was that I had another biopsy on Monday so that before the operation actually started, I’d have some proper evidence of what was in that first big lump.


'You do not want Dr Li as your surgeon.' Lois lowers her voice, even though the meeting room is sound-proofed. 'A malpractice lawyer I know told me he let a woman bleed out on the table and didn't even notice. I’m going to introduce you to my surgeon, Bonnie Chang. She was just awesome.’

I write all this down. I’m always a good note-taker.

‘So, let me guess, as soon as you heard you had cancer you started planning your funeral?’ I nod. ‘Well, the first thing you need to know is, you’re not going to die. Not now. And anyway, we all die in the end. So forget that part and just get on with it.’

I don’t believe Lois but I decide to go with it.

‘And the second thing is, you will not be in control. And that’s hard, I know, because we alpha women are all used to being in control and you can’t be – you have to find a medical team you trust and then you have to leave it to them. And the private medical care here in Hong Kong really is awesome – as long as we get you away from that Dr Li.’

I’d had a follow up call from Dr Li’s nurse after lunch.

‘Hello, Miss Munro? Peggy calling from Dr Li’s office. You need to book PET scan, chest and stomach ultrasound.’

‘Okay. And what’s the purpose of all that?’

‘If cancer already gone to liver or lungs, no point operating next Thursday.’

I tear up as I tell Lois this. I hadn’t thought my voice could get any smaller.

‘That’s when I decided to go back to London. I can’t deal with this here.’

‘Ah, that Cantonese bedside manner. Yeah, you do have to get used to that. And they’ll give you pictures of the operation – they’ll try to give you all your tumours in a jar. But seriously, go and see Bonnie. See her on Monday and then decide. What are you doing this weekend? I can come round – or you can come to mine. We can talk or just watch movies. Or get a foot massage.’

I explain that it’s Richard’s 50th birthday and we’ve planned a weekend for the four of us in Hanoi.

‘I suppose it’s stupid to go.’

‘No, you go. And have a foot massage on me.’

Lois takes my hands and looks at me again: ‘Cancer sucks. But it is what it is. Don’t let it stop you. Here’s a thing – I never cried about my cancer – not at diagnosis, not when they told me I needed chemo, not when the medics finally shared their wonderful mortality statistics with me. But my sister, my greatest supporter all through my cancer treatment, she just didn’t wake up one morning – my nieces are only four and five. It was an embolism. Came out of nowhere. She never had a chance. Boy, that makes me cry.’

Lois pulls out a tissue and blows her nose.

‘So, it’s just cancer. It is what it is,’ she says and looks me right in the eye.

‘It is what it is,’ I repeat and I’m still completely shit-scared but at least the timbre is back in my voice. I sound like myself again.