For the past two weeks, I’ve been tackling the bins of belongings stored in our garage, a necessary task as we continue to prepare for a move. Frankly, I’ve been shocked at how much of the boxes contained things that belong solely to me: keepsakes I kept for reasons now not clear, photographs of sights seen on vacations, materials I used to use in my writing groups, and more than a few containers of journals, one dating back to high school, another to my undergraduate years, and many more, prose and poetry that documented my life, especially those that documented particularly challenging or painful periods, a reminder to how writing has helped me heal and weather the difficult chapters of my life.
There was another carton, also filled with booklets of writing—not mine–but the stories and poetry written in the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops I’ve led over many years. Some of my first group members’ writing was featured in both my books, A Healing Journey (2004) and When Words Heal (2006), but these were printed in booklets, compilations of the writing shared in the groups and printed for the participants at the end of each series. I sat on the floor and through them yesterday afternoon, remembering faces, individuals’ cancer experiences, many who recovered, and some whose lives were taken by cancer.
The expressive writing workshops are intended to help people write about the experience of cancer, however raw and unwieldy, and in whatever way most natural to each. Some write narratives, others write poetry, but the form is inconsequential. What matters is the act of expressing what cancer is for each person, finding ways to make sense of the chaotic emotional experience of it, and supporting their efforts to better cope. Invariably, a vibrant community of cancer patients and survivors forms through the writing and shared stories—all of it beginning with that word, “cancer,” the one that turns your life upside down and inside out. Writing for those in the groups, as it has also been for me, provides refuge, release and a way to help heal from the emotional upheaval of cancer.
“Think of the time you first heard that awful word, “cancer.” This is the prompt that most often begins our first session. As you might imagine, the descriptions of the moment and of cancer are as unique as the people who come to write and share their
One writer used the simple form of an alpha poem, each line beginning with a letter in the word “Cancer:”
Caught off guard in the midst of my otherwise life,
Apocalypse entered and through me from the highest rooftop.
Nothing I already know about anything prepared me for the fall…
Another writer communicated the moment of diagnosis in a short three line haiku, powerfully communicating her experience in seventeen syllables:
In the white office
oncologist in white coat
I brace for the wave
Often, as the workshop progresses, many writers portray cancer through metaphor, by making a comparison with something else. In many ways, the metaphor not only creates a striking image, but it helps to defuse cancer’s emotional potency. For example, one writer described her diagnosis as entering a foreign country:
We have entered the country of Cancer
My body and I…
A foreign country
Yet another writer described her cancer experience in a humorous, yet powerful, piece entitled “Cancer Boot Camp,” beginning with the patient standing at attention:
I Can Sir!
Yes I will heal it. I can Sir!
Yes, I will survive it. I can Sir!
(J. N, 2016)
“Cancer” also often becomes a character, allowing the writers to visualize it differently, even talk back to it. Some cancers, this next writer tells us, are less common and more “hidden” in the body than others—and, thus, more frightening.
Some cancers arrive with fanfare,
trumpets, an engraved invitation…
But some cancers know how to hide.
They defy the eye, the scope, the scan.
They are not the usual suspects…
(K. M., 2013)
For another participant, cancer is “The Thief,” is stealthy and accomplished, who robs the writer of her security:
He is a thief. Not an ordinary thief, who steals purses, jewelry or a car. Instead he steals more person, more precious things. Irreplaceable things…I see him finalizing his plan to steal my peace of mind, my security in believing I can control my health… (N.S. 2014)
“If cancer is like a song sung off-key,” another group member wrote in a poem entitled, “The Metaphors of Cancer,” “then cancer interrupts the beautiful song of our hearts…”
If cancer is like a bird falling from the sky
Then cancer craves the immediate warmth of a gentle cupped hand
If cancer is a tremendous energy and force
That comes in the winter of our lives
Only to disappear after leaving its mark
Stimulating new growth
As we fight for Spring.
These are only a small sample of the many poignant, humorous, and powerful pieces of writing that are created and shared–all under a time limit!–in our expressive writing groups. The writing that I witness in those sessions is, undoubtedly, among the most moving I’ve ever experienced. Many participants come to the group saying, “I’m not a writer, but…” And I quickly remind them that the great poet William Stafford had a wonderfully succinct way of describing a writer. “A writer,” he said, “is someone who writes.” And so they begin, finding a way to express what, in those first weeks after diagnosis, seems nearly unexpressible, and often surprising themselves by the beauty in their words, writing in ways that move us and touch our hearts.
How do you experience cancer? What images and descriptions do you use? Expand and explore them in a poem or short narrative.
Many times during the workshop, we begin by reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stephens, a collection of different ways of seeing or experiencing a blackbird. Here is an excerpt:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
(From: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)
After reading the poem, I invite the group to write their own poems, modeled after Stephens, but focused on cancer. Trying writing your own poem in the manner of Stephens, describing thirteen different ways of looking cancer.