Treating JG Ballard for cancer leaves a lasting mark

The Hampstead oncologist who was inspired by his patient- JG Ballard

�Type JG Ballard in to a search engine and the trail of inspiration he has left behind since his death seems to have endured as a part of almost every element of popular culture. The author of Crash and Empire Of The Sun has influenced culture to such an extent that it is suggested he even spurred on a postmodernist cultural movement (the Cyberpunk movement, apparently).

For most people, reading his work is enough to get them to create something spectacular. For Jonathan Waxman, it was meeting the man himself that reignited his love of literature. Waxman was Ballard’s oncologist, treating the prostate cancer that would eventually end his life. During their consultations, they would speak at length about life, death and literature. Waxman, who had experimented with writing throughout his medical career, had an idea for a project that would create something from their conversations. It was to be a jointly written book on the doctor and patient experience of cancer.

“I was very nervous about asking him to do the project,” says Waxman, 60. “I didn’t ask him for a while because I was worried he would think I was exploiting him. Then I asked him because I thought, ‘It is his choice and he can refuse to do it.’”

Waxman asked Ballard during a consultation. “He greeted the project with instant enthusiasm,” says the professor of oncology at Imperial College. “I wished I’d not waited so long.”

Before the project could get underway, Ballard’s cancer became serious and he died in 2009, aged 78.

Waxman, who was invited to speak at Ballard’s wake, felt he had lost a friend. “It is very unusual for doctors to form a friendship with their patients because you have to be guarded. Seeing someone like him transcended the normal experience. I would learn something every time, understand something better. There were very few patients who I could talk to about books like him.” Waxman had met Ballard in 1999 but it was their consultation conversation that sealed the alliance between the two.

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Following Ballard’s death, Waxman, who was born and lives in Hampstead, decided to embark on a different but related project – a fictionalised account of the relationships between doctors and their patients called The Elephant In The Room. His book, which he describes as “led by the memory” of Ballard but in no way connected to the author, took him just two weeks to write and is inspired by the true life stories he has witnessed in his job. “It sounds bad – but it was easy,” he says. “It wrote itself.”

The book is another milestone in Waxman’s double life as a doctor and writer. In 1997, his novel The Fifth Gospel was so controversial that he used a pen name.

This time around, he has come clean, even revealing his motivations in the prologue to The Elephant In The Room. He writes about a realisation during Ballard’s wake: “I was left with the feeling that somehow I had let Jimmy down by not completing our project.”

In completing the book, Waxman feels now that the book serves a wider purpose. “It sounds a bit prissy but I hope that the book can help all patients. The most important reason is to provide help and support for people.”

- -The Elephant In The Room is published by Springer �22.99. JG Ballard’s work is published by Harper Press