Henye beats multiple myeloma to keep telling stories

By Doreen Wachmann

CHILDREN’S author Henye Meyer was writing her first historical novel based in Manchester when she discovered she had cancer.

American-born Henye, who has been living in Manchester since 1976, started making up stories when she was a small child.

She told me: “When I was six I told stories about baby mosquitos to the other kids in day camp. I always loved reading and writing, the thrill of the written word.”

Surprisingly, for someone currently obsessed with researching authentic historical details for her novels, she did not enjoy history at school.

She recalled: “I hated it. It seemed boring and irrelevant. It was all about wars and churches.”

She added: “The teaching of Jewish history is just as bad. It is always taught as one persecution after another. If they start having a good time, they drop that country. It is never balanced, I object to this.”

But Henye loved historical novels, which, she felt, brought history to life.

She told me: “I always read everything.”

She particularly liked Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels for young adults.

The 73-year-old recalled an occasion when her father took her on a business trip to Philadelphia and dropped her off at the city’s central library. She picked up Ms Sutcliff’s latest book, Outcast, set in Roman Britain.

Hours later, when her father returned from his business dealings, Henye was in floods of tears, pleading with him to let her finish the book before they left the city. He did.

Henye’s first novel, Exiles of Crocodile Island, which was aimed at the charedi teenage market, describes Jewish children fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Her second, A Stranger to My Brothers, is set during the First Crusade.

Then Henye decided to change genre and write Adrenalin Rush, a comic thriller, written for the charedi market, which was starved of well-written fiction in that genre.

But then it was back to her beloved history with This is America, set in early 20th century America, describing the pressures of assimilation upon new immigrants.

She then moved on to her adopted home with Starlight, set in Victorian London.

With her publisher demanding another book of the same ilk, Henye decided to set her next book in Victorian Manchester, describing the incursions of the Reform Movement on the Orthodox community.

The storyline is set against the backdrop of the 1860s Lancashire cotton famine, which was affected by the American Civil War — an event familiar with the mainly American readership.

In June, 2015, Henye had made an appointment to see Manchester Jewish historian Dr Yaakov Wise to check historical background for her novel. But two days before she was due to see him she underwent an emergency cancer operation.

For some time, septuagenarian Henye had been suffering from backache.

But she said: “I was not so young any more. I realised you do get aches and pains as you get older. I was the healthy one of the family. So I kept going.”

But when the pain became unbearable, she went to North Manchester General Hospital emergency department and was sent home with pain killers.

After she became numb, Henye contacted her GP, Dr Wayne Davis, who immediately referred her to Salford Royal’s spinal centre.

Within 24 hours she was operated on and diagnosed with multiple myeloma. One large tumour and two small ones had crushed her vertebra which had caused her the excruciating pain.

Henye said: “I had the most wonderful surgeon who, not only found the tumours and removed them, but also rebuilt the vertebrae. He did the most beautiful job of rebuilding the vertebrae.

“Every time since that I have had a chest X-ray, I’ve heard the technicians saying, ‘Isn’t that beautiful? Look at that work! So tiny, gorgeous’.”

She added: “The spinal unit is a ward of miracles. People arrive in agony. They can’t move. The next day they walk home. I had the most wonderful doctor, an Igbo, a member of the African tribe which claims to be Jewish.

“Afterwards I wanted to know what the tumours looked like. They had obviously never had anybody ask that before. I wanted to know if they were grey and slimy or pink and pulsey. I was told they were white and flabby.”

With Henye’s attention to detail, was she storing up the information on her cancer treatment for a future book on the subject, I asked her.

“No,” she said, “it is too close to home. I can talk about it, but not write about it. Writing involves focus and I don’t want to focus on it.”

But Henye was very happy to continue to describe her recovery process.

She was told that if one had to choose a kind of cancer, myeloma’s the best one because it is relatively easily treatable.

But the rehabilitation process and preventative treatments were less straightforward.

Henye spent five months in a rehabilitation ward. She described the view from the window as a “prisoner’s exercise yard”.

She said: “There was nothing but walls. We had a magnificent thunderstorm with spectacular flashes of lightning. But I couldn’t see any of it.”

At first Henye couldn’t sit up or get out of bed unaided. She insisted on getting the best physiotherapy available even though it was summer holiday time and the hospital was short-staffed.

And she worked hard at her exercises.

She said: “If I woke in the middle of the night, I did my exercises before I went back to sleep. I was flat on my back for months so everything went flabby, besides the damage to the spinal cord and the swelling.

“Over the first month or two the swelling slowly went down and I regained some functions. I had to wait for the nerves to regenerate.”

Nearly two years on, Henye’s nerves are still regenerating.

Now she can walk unaided around her house, but uses a walker outside.

She said: “I have all my functions back, but I feel I am walking around with someone else’s legs. I don’t have complete feeling. I am still getting the odd place back again.”

Simultaneous to the rehab, Henye was receiving chemotherapy for the cancer.

She said: “I sailed through five cycles of chemotherapy. Because the myeloma was so easily treatable, the chemotherapy was very gentle and incredibly well-targeted. I hardly noticed the first two cycles.”

Henye was also receiving “wonderful palliative care”.

She said: “The hospital provides it not only for end of life, but for anyone who needs it.

“Within minutes after I took the painkillers they prescribed I could feel this blessed warmth spreading up my legs. I felt good again. I could do my exercises.”

After five months in hospital, Henye was encouraged to undergo a stem cell transplant from her own cells to give her a longer period of cancer remission.

In the summer of 2015, the official policy was that nobody over 60 could have the treatment. Three weeks after Henye’s operation the policy changed to include anybody in prime health.

Henye said: “I was a prime candidate. My haematologist was really gung ho.”

But the side-effects were horrendous.

Henye said: “I felt terrible. My hair fell out. I was nauseous. For a week I was completely off my head and hallucinating. I went on safari in my mind.”

For some time after the treatment she was plagued with fatigue and she has just recovered from a bout of shingles.

Nevertheless, Henye — who reads to residents at Manchester’s Beenstock House — has now completed her Manchester novel, which is with her publisher.

She has now started her next teenage novel about a Norman 12th century convert to Judaism, whose story is described in a geniza document.

She has returned once again to her natural element of the medieval history which she loves.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph