'People think you shouldn't laugh where serious illness is concerned but life goes on'
Belfast teacher Christine Hamill's first book was a humorous account of her breast cancer battle. Now, the mum-of-one has written a light-hearted children's novel that also tackles the tricky subject of the illness... with a little help from comedian Harry Hill. Stephanie Bell reports.
Christine Hamill has a way of bringing humour to the trauma of cancer that no other author has dared to - which is why her first book, B is for Breast Cancer, has been such a big hit.
Now the Belfast school teacher has done it again.
This time her experience of cancer and the light relief provided by TV funnyman Harry Hill has proved the rather unusual inspiration for her latest work - a comic novel for children called The Best Medicine.
Christine's world came crashing down round her in 2008 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45.
A single mum to Callan, now 18, she came through months of treatment including surgery for a mastectomy and radiotherapy before finally plucking up the courage to tell her young son, who was 10 at the time, about her illness.
Callan was just about to move to grammar school and was facing challenges of his own, so Christine was terrified of placing another burden on him by telling him she had cancer.
It is this part of her cancer journey which formed the basis for her new book - which has already received the seal of approval from comedian Harry Hill - who unwittingly played a big part in helping mother and son through the tough time of her illness.
International best-selling thriller writer John Connolly has also given it a rave review, describing it as "funny, moving and strangely empowering in its determination to laugh in the face of the seemingly unbearable. It's hard to believe that it's a first novel".
And while the book is aimed at children aged between 10 and 13, Christine has been inundated with messages from adults who say they can't put it down.
Her new book was inspired by real events but Christine, now 53 and clear of cancer, stresses it is not autobiographical.
It tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who has to deal with his mum's illness while she struggles to find a way to tell him and he can't figure out what is wrong.
Like her first book, which is still in the bestseller list on Amazon, it has some very touching moments but the main character, Philip, has a lot to deal with. The budding comedian is worried that he is losing his touch, has a school bully the Yeti to contend with as well as the (gorgeous) Goddess, the Romantic poets, an annoying Chihuahua and his best friend Ang.
Through it all, Philip is writing letters to his hero, the comedian Harry Hill, looking for advice.
Christine explains what gave her the idea for the story: "When I was diagnosed Callan was 10 and a half and about to do his 11-plus and making the transition to big school. All these new things were happening to him and I just felt that I couldn't put a sick parent into the mix as he had a lot to deal with already.
"I kept a lid on my emotions in front of him for months. I just thought it is not much fun having someone sick in your life, no matter how much you love them. And a child shouldn't be thinking about that.
"While I was diagnosed in September, it was the middle of January before I told him. He had his 11-plus, then his birthday was coming up and I put it off because I didn't want to ruin that; then there was Christmas and a school trip in January.
"But I knew I couldn't keep putting it off so when he came back from his school trip I sat him down and explained to him - and he took it quite well. The strain I had put myself under trying to make sure he didn't find out and people didn't let anything slip was ridiculous.
"I knew then if I had just been straight with him from the start it would have been easier.
"The word cancer carries so much weight and people are afraid of it. But it just became an ordinary word in our house which is something I never believed it could possibly be.
"Callan is a calm person and we talked about it and went over it. He asked me questions in a very calm way and I was just so glad that eventually I had found a way to tell him."
Callan is a now studying for his A-levels in Methodist College where he is a member of the award-winning Chapel Choir which has been picked to sing evensong for several nights at Westminster Abbey in July.
In Christine's new book the main character Philip is writing letters to his hero, the comedian Harry Hill, asking for inspiration.
He wants to be a comedian and is baffled because his mum has stopped laughing at his jokes and he asks Harry Hill to help him.
Christine explains how the well-known comic became such a big part of the book. "One Saturday night during my cancer treatment I was in the kitchen struggling to make the dinner - close to tears with the effort. Then I heard my son laughing hysterically in the living room. I went in and he was literally hanging off the couch laughing and the tears were tripping him," she says.
"He was watching Harry Hill on TV. I sat down and watched with him, and Harry Hill became our wee oasis on a Saturday night together through the whole treatment. It was a relief and a respite to be laughing. And, of course, if gave me the idea for this book.
"Some people might think you shouldn't laugh where serious illness is concerned but life goes on for the child and for the sick parent. Children can feel guilty for getting on with their lives and having fun at a time like that. But of course they shouldn't. The Best Medicine is my way of saying so. The book is permission to keep on laughing.
"There is a lot happening in the book and it is fun and designed to give you a laugh.
"I did a very bad job of telling my son about my cancer and there is a lot of comedy in how the mum in the book tries to find a way to tell the son, leaving him trying to figure out what is wrong with her."
Christine, who grew up in Dungannon and studied English Literature at Queen's University, lived in Spain and England before settling in Belfast where she teaches in a further education college.
She wrote her first book B is for Breast Cancer while going through treatment.
The book broke the mould in its light-hearted approach to dealing with the illness. Aimed at fellow sufferers, it is a frank, friendly insider's guide to the emotional and physical challenges faced by breast cancer patients.
Filled with advice, tips, reassurance and sympathetic explanations, it is presented in an A-Z format - from A is for Anger to Z is for Zzzs - offering bite-sized chunks of help and hope.
Published in March 2014 it has continued to be a best-seller and has attracted rave reviews online.
"I was so delighted that so many people enjoyed the book and it is still selling well which is great," she says.
For her latest book published this month, Christine had to get permission through Harry Hill's agent for the comic to be included in the novel.
Just last week she received a letter from the man himself describing the book as "wonderful" and saying he was thrilled to have a part in it.
Christine adds: "The letter came last week in an unusual envelope and Callan picked it up from the floor. My first thought was that I hoped it wasn't another bill.
"I literally jumped for joy when I saw it was a letter from Harry Hill and Callan was very chuffed. He also agreed to allow us to use his glasses which are like his brand on the front cover."
The book has been published by Little Island, whose owner Siobhan Parkinson says: "This book brings one of modern life's most prevalent illnesses into the light and gives it a human face. It takes a light-hearted approach to a difficult subject that affects many children in real life - while being a terrific read for children and adults alike who like a laugh."
- The Best Medicine by Christine Hamill is available now on Amazon, priced £6.99
Celebrities who survived breast cancer
Cynthia Nixon: diagnosed in 2006 at 40
Initially, the Sex and the City star (50) was hesitant to reveal that a cancerous tumour had been discovered in her right breast during a routine mammogram
Sally Dynevor: diagnosed in 2009 at 45
The 52-year-old Coronation Street actress, who plays Sally Webster, was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year her character was, for which she had chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Dynevor did return to the ITV soap in July 2010 following a six-month break
Sheryl Crow: diagnosed in 2006 at 44
The 54-year-old singer said she is a walking advertisement for early detection. Suspicious calcifications were spotted in both of her breasts on a routine mammogram
Kylie Minogue: diagnosed in 2005 at 36
A misdiagnosis almost lost Australian pop star Kylie Minogue (47) her chance to fight — and defeat — breast cancer. Thankfully, she went for a second round of tests and doctors found the lump in her left breast