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Archive for the ‘life writing’ Category

Don’t wish it away
Don’t look at it like it’s forever
Between you and me I could honestly say
That things can only get better

(From: “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” by Bernie Taupin; sung by Elton John, 1983)

It hasn’t been the best week for me. Nine days ago, my computer crashed. Went kaput. Left me like an ex-lover in the middle of an afternoon. No warning—or rather, none that I noticed, so caught up in my “to-do” lists that I gave the slower functioning of my machine barely a thought. Then it happened. I’d had a great meeting with a Toronto cancer support services organization and sat down to follow-up with a thank-you and a short description of my expressive writing workshops. I turned on my computer. Nothing. I tried again, multiple times, and still, nothing. Shock, disbelief and panic followed in short order. And despite three days in the computer repair shop, I was still unable to access important files or my email contacts. Any action I took seemed to complicate an already complicated recovery process. Frustration, stress, loss…all technology-related, which, in the greater scheme of things now seems trite, but by Tuesday, the turkeys had me down. I had a full blown case of the blues.

“I guess that’s why they call it the blues…” I kept hearing Elton John’s voice in my head. I was stuck in the middle of the blues, but I wondered, why are those periods of feeling downhearted and depressed called“the blues?” I love blues music, and I never leave a live performance feeling down. Quite the contrary.  So I did some checking. Apparently “the blues” originated with a 17th century English expression (“the blue devils”) related to severe alcohol withdrawal, but over time, “the blues” signaled a state of agitation and depression. Gradually, the blues turned into music expressing the singer’s passions and struggles.

Here’s the thing: According to Web MD, “sooner or later, everyone gets the blues.” It’s a fact of life. We all experience difficult experiences in our lives—loss, serious illness, financial hardship, the aftermath of natural disasters, and so much more. It’s normal to feel sadness, grief, loneliness, or malaise during those times. And the majority of the time, we are able to bounce back, pick our lives and ourselves up and begin again.

Everyday, everyday I have the blues
Ooh everyday, everyday I have the blues

(—B.B. King, “Everyday I Have the Blues”)

But what if you don’t bounce back? What if your feelings of sadness linger, are excessive, or interfere with your work, sleep, or even your recreation? Perhaps fatigue,worthlessness, or weight changes accompany your feelings of sadness. That’s more than “the blues.” You may be experiencing major depression, a medical condition that goes beyond life’s ordinary ups and downs. According to Web MD, Almost 18.8 million American adults experience depression each year, and women are twice as likely as men to develop it. In those cases, professional help and treatment are key to recovery.

The blues are common in cancer. Dana Price, author of “Block the Blues,” an article on the website, Cancer Fighters Thrive, says “considering the many concerns patients can face with cancer and related treatments: confronting mortality, managing financial stressors or job responsibilities, and the physical side effects of treatment and surgery trigger strong emotional responses—ones that may fall within the spectrum of anxiety and depression. Price notes that it is sometimes difficult for patients or caregivers to know if their “cancer blues” are normal or signs of a more serious depression and offers wisdom from Dr. Laura Sunn, psychiatrist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. “It’s not unusual for people to have strong emotional responses,” Sunn says. “In treating cancer patients, we’re aware that these responses may fall in the spectrum of anxiety and depression.”

It’s no wonder, considering the many concerns patients can face with cancer and related treatment. Confronting mortality, managing financial stressors and job responsibilities, and coping with physical side effects of treatment can all be significant worries. “If you’re suffering worry every day and losing sleep, this can lead to depression,” Sunn says.

When the worry and stress begin to affect your normal daily life, however, it’s time to seek professional help. .Left untreated, depression can be debilitating and, Sunn states, “result in a loss of hope.”

You got to help me darlin’
I can’t do it all by myself
You got to help me, baby
I can’t do it all by myself
You know if you don’t help me darling
I’ll have to find myself somebody else

(Sonny Boy Williamson II, “Help Me”)

What can you do if you’re feeling sad and depressed? These tips offered by the Canadian Cancer Society are helpful to any of us who may be dealing with the blues, whether cancer-related or due to other upsetting or stressful experiences.  Here are steps you can take:

  • Talk to family members or friends about these feelings or talk to someone who has had a similar experience.
  • Seek out positive people and events to keep your spirits up.
  • Eat well and be as physically active as possible. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters.
  • Try to relieve tension with yoga or meditation.
  • Look to your spiritual faith for comfort. Talk to a spiritual leader or clergy member for help in hard times.
  • Talk to your healthcare team or your family doctor. They can refer you to a mental health expert who specializes in treating depression.
  • Ask your doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist about medicine to treat depression.

Well, as Amy Winehouse once said, “every bad situation is a blues song waiting
to happen.” Yes, even a computer crash. When the frustration overflowed yesterday afternoon, I knew it was time to stop. I shut the computer down, took a shower and belted out Elton John’s “I guess that’s why they call it the blues.” The song—and my horrible rendition of it—helped me rediscover my sense of humor. Later, my husband and I went out to a little jazz festival in Kensington Market, and as we stopped to hear the music, my trials with my computer malfunction became less important. We relaxed and enjoyed the music, and all the while, my blues began to fade. This morning, everything seemed much more manageable.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you suffered from the blues? What triggered the feeling? What did you do to help yourself overcome them?
  • Strong emotions accompany any upsetting event in our lives. Write about a time that an unexpected event happened to you: cancer, job loss, sudden loss of a loved one, a sudden break-up with a partner, or another difficult life experience. Try to recall and describe what you were feeling. What helped you through the shock, grief and loss.
  • Was Winehouse right? Is every bad situation the material for a blues song? What do you think?

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 Dear Readers,

Apologies to you all as this week is a repost from 2016.  However, given the circumstances that prompted me to return to earlier content, I’m hoping you’ll understand.  I will say, however, that in the midst of the devastation in Texas over a week ago, and now, Hurricane Irma plowing northward through Florida, my loss seems trivial.  But it has affected my ability to use my computer.  On Friday afternoon, my computer crashed, and with it, not only contacts and folders of various important information, but over a decade of manuscripts–unfinished stories and poems–and, you guessed it, a body of work devoted to expressive writing and cancer that, as I write this today, has been only partly recovered.  Given that, the topic of losing something and finding it–or having to re-invent it–seemed apropos.  I hope that by next weekend, I’ll be fully operational once more.  Thanks for understanding and following this weekly blog site.–Sharon Bray

For the Week of September 10, 2017:  Lost & Found

Death steals everything except our stories.–Jim Harrison

(From: “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” In Search of Small Gods, 2009)

Loss.  It’s something we’ve been witnessing as natural disasters–hurricanes, floods, wildfire–take toll on people and their lives.  Loss is also often synonymous with cancer–the loss of hair, parts of the body; self-image, dreams, or loss of loved ones.  In a world that seems to be dominated by losses, we feel overwhelmed and hopeless as we face a landscape defined  by tragedy, sorrow and grief.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

–from “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994

When cancer strikes or you experience the kind of devastation suffered at the hands of Nature’s wrath, life, as you once knew it, is never the same afterward.  The landscape between what Shihab-Nye calls the  “regions of kindness,” does seem desolate.  What we took for granted seems like a distant memory.  And for a time, we grieve, yes, but hope somehow finds a way back to us, solace is given, and in those small moments of kindness, we start to see our world differently, and find our way back to life and begin to heal.  As Shihab-Nye says,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

During times of loss and grief,when we least expect it, we discover kindness.  We make  new friends, build new dreams, and discover gratitude for small gifts life offers us, ones we overlooked or barely noticed before.  We find new facets of ourselves to explore, strength or resilience we never imagined possible.  Perhaps we even discover we haven’t lost as much as we thought.  The kind of loss that comes from cancer or other serious illness is often fertile ground for new knowledge and understanding.

Writing helps us articulate– even mourn–what we have lost in the difficult chapters of life,  but it offers us much more.  When we write, we have a blank page, an unblemished open space upon which to reclaim lost stories, create new ones, reclaim our voices and ourselves.  We discover new insights, new possibilities.  Our words have the power to touch others.  We find new realms of creativity we never realized we possessed.  We find ourselves again.

Writing Suggestions:

I.   First, take a blank sheet of paper and list  all that you have lost–whether important keepsakes, friendships, loved ones or physical attributes and abilities you had before cancer.

  • Don’t stop there.  Turn the page over.  Now list the acts of kindness that you remember, the ones that made a difference.And gave you hope, helped you rediscover what you thought your lost or helped you see things in a new light.  Even, sometimes, helped you reinvent what you thought you lost into something new and even better.  Explore what you’ve lost and what you’ve found.

II.  Using Jim Harrison’s words, “death steals everything but our stories,” write about losing something or someone.  What stories about that thing or person  do you carry with you?  Write one of them.

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Pick yourself up…

Take a deep breath…

Dust yourself off                      

And start all over again.

Pick yourself up…

(From “Pick Yourself Up,” lyrics by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields)

These are the words from a song often played by my mother when I was a child, often when I suffered some youthful defeat.  I can still hear Nat King Cole’s mellow tones reminding us that we all encounter difficulties, but must find a way to go on:  “Will you remember the famous men/who had to fall to rise again/They picked themselves up/ Dust themselves off/and started all over again.”

It’s easier said than done, as we’re reminded by the devastation suffered by thousands of Texans in the path of Hurricane Harvey this past week.  Recovery, whether from natural disaster, trauma, addiction or cancer is no small feat.  A look through the dictionary defines recovery as “a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength; the process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”  And yet, so many aspects of our former lives, especially in the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, fire, cancer or traumatic losses, might never be fully regained.  How then can we understand the process of recovery?

Right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe.—Anne LaMott

My heart ached as I watched the news this week and witnessed the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.  It’s the worst hurricane to make landfall in the United States since the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season which included Katrina, Rita and Wilma (Source:  Wikipedia).  The physical destruction and economic losses are staggering, and it will take months, perhaps longer, for people to rebuild and recover.  And yet, the speed of recovery matters.  Because of the economic and emotional pain and deprivation suffered by families and communities, the effects of these natural disasters can be long-lasting.

It’s not just the physical devastation of a disaster like Harvey.  The emotional costs after a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake are great.  People feel stunned and disoriented.  Feelings are raw and unpredictable; repeated and vivid memories of the event can create physical responses such as rapid heartbeat, sleeplessness or loss of appetite.  Interpersonal relationships can be strained.  These emotional stresses can continue long after the event.  Even in post-disaster rebuilding, people and communities do not resume “life as it was before.”  Lives are forever altered, and gradually, a “new normal” emerges.

Recovery has similar challenges, whether in the emotional suffering of survivors of natural disasters or individuals experiencing cancer, trauma and sudden, tragic loss . The process of recovery doesn’t promise smooth sailing.  Whether a hurricane or cancer treatment and surgeries, physical symptoms like fatigue, weight changes, sleeplessness or change in appetite can accompany us during recovery, as Dana Jennings, a prostate cancer survivor and New York Times writer, described:

I’m recovering well from an aggressive case of prostate cancer; I haven’t had any treatment in months, and all my physical signposts of health are point in the right direction.

Still, I’m depressed.–Dana Jennings (“After Cancer, Ambushed by Depression, NY Times, Sept. 29, 2009)

He describes another aspect of recovery:  The troublesome physical symptoms during the process are often coupled with emotional responses: depression, guilt, anger, fear of recurrence, or the frustration of dealing with loved ones as you encounter a changed life or an altered body.  Whatever our new normal is going to be, it takes time, more time that we expect, and the process of getting there can be challenging.

I’m exhausted, unfocused and tap my left foot a lot in agitation.  I don’t much want to go anywhere…and some days I can’t even bear the thought of picking up the phone or changing a lightbulb…

Partly, I think, I’m grieving for the person I was before I learned I had cancer.  Mortality is no longer abstract, and a certain innocence has been lost.—Dana Jennings

Recovery is a process that, like it or not,  happens slowly.  There are days, even weeks, you may feel you’ll never make it through to a more “normal” life, yet research shows us that the majority of people are resilient and able, over time, to bounce back from tragedy.

And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.—Anne LaMott

How do you navigate through the process of recovery?  The American Psychological Association offers advice, steps you can take to regain emotional well-being and a sense of control after a traumatic event like a natural disaster, sudden loss, or life threatening illness:

  • Give yourself time to adjust. It’s a difficult time in your life; allow yourself the time to mourn the losses you’ve suffered.
  • Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize. Social support is a critical component to any recovery, whether a natural disaster or a serious illness.  Family and friends can help, so, perhaps, can a support group.
  • Communicate your experience. As Dana Jennings said in his 2009 article, “I believe in and trust in the healing power of the stories that we tell each other.”  Talking with friends, keeping a journal or expressing yourself in another creative activity can be healing.
  • Find a local support group led by professionally trained and experienced professionals. The group discussion can help you realize you are not alone in how you feel and react.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors, like eating well balanced meals and getting plenty of rest.
  • Establish (or reestablish) your routines, like eating at regular times, sleeping and waking on a regular cycle, or engaging in daily exercise, for example.
  • Avoid making major life decisions. Big and important decisions are stressful enough on their own, and they are much harder to take on when you are recovering from disaster or serious illness.

All of us experience some kind of life challenge, a tragedy, loss, serious illness or even a natural disaster in our lives.  In their wake, we may feel as if our lives will never be the same.  And it’s likely they won’t, because we will be changed by what has happened to us. Yet our lives will go on, and there may be lessons gained from the suffering.  Gail Caldwell summed up her lessons in her memoir of friendship and loss of a dear friend: “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”  (Let’s Take the Long Way Home:  A Memoir of Friendship, 2010).

We are changed by the difficult chapters in our lives, and in many ways, perhaps, for the better, as Caldwell suggessts.   I have often remarked how my encounter with cancer was so early and treatable, I felt like a “phony,” and refused the label of “survivor.”  I doubted I truly understood the emotional roller coaster so many cancer patients endured until later I collapsed on the pavement a few years later and was taken to the hospital by ambulance to be diagnosed with heart failure. For weeks afterward, my emotions were not only unpredictable, but colored by a fear of early mortality –something that crept into my thoughts without warning.  I’d be in tears, lying awake with fear as my companion.  It took time and support from my doctors, family and friends to return to a “normal” way of living, but at the same time, I was learning more about emotional recovery that informed my practice with cancer patients and survivors.

During those first unsteady months, I came across a poem by Ellen Bass,  one that affected me so deeply,  I framed it and hung over my desk. It served as a daily reminder that while my life had changed by the unexpected diagnosis and treatment for a weakened heart, I could take steps to lead a long and relatively healthy life.   Here’s the poem–it’s one I often return to and read in my writing groups for cancer patients.

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

(By Ellen Bass, From Mules of Love. © 2002)

Writing Suggestion:

Yes, I will take you/I will love you again.  Try using Ellen’s words as the prompt to describe a time when your life was devastated or turned upside down by an unexpected loss, tragedy or illness.  What helped you recover and heal from that event?  What did you learn about yourself, and your life as a result of it?

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“My house sits on about 10-feet elevation so if the storm surge gets up to 12 feet it’s going to be a bit of a problem. If it’s 15 feet I’ll sit on the roof and surf my way into downtown Corpus. But I’m hunkered down. I’ve got food. I’ve got water. If my power goes out I’ll eat what’s in the fridge then eat stuff cold, out of a can. I’m a Boy Scout, so I’m prepared. I can ride this thing out.”(Wade Walker, quoted in “Hurricane Harvey is Scaring Everyone Away But These People,” by Alex Hannaford, Reuters, 08/26/17)

I rarely turn on the television news in the evening as I once did, unwilling to let the constant stream of negative news—violence, shootings, Washington politics, war and the suffering—consume my thoughts and mood.  But I followed the news of Hurricane Harvey on Friday and again last night, full of heartache for the many hundreds of people who suffered so much devastation and loss.  It will be days yet before the full extent of the damage will be assessed, but despite the losses, people are already coming together to help one another.  It’s that, in the midst of such sorrow and suffering, enables people find hope, something we witness again and again in the midst of tragedy and loss.

Hope is something we all need at so many different times in our lives.  It plays a major role in our healing, whether from tragedy, loss or serious illness.  Siddhartha Mukherjee, physician and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer (2011) defined hope as a “vital organ” in a lecture he delivered nearly three years ago at University of California, San Diego.  According to Mukherjee, hope gives cancer patients added life force.  Is it any wonder then, that in the world of cancer, loss and suffering, hope might be one of the most powerful medicines we possess?

If a man die, it is because death

has first possessed his imagination.

 (William Carlos Williams, in Mukherjee, p.306).

 

Hope is an expectation that something good can happen in the future—and in the midst of suffering or sorrow, we sometimes forget that hope is there, waiting to be discovered in many different situations in our lives.  Anne LaMott’s 2013 book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, illustrates how hope exists–even in a world punctuated by vitriolic political discourse, frequent reports of random shootings, car bombs, wars, natural disasters, hunger or life-threatening disease.  “Hope is a conversation,” LaMott states.  “What allows us to go on and find those small moments of goodness, are to be found in “attention, creation, love, and,” she adds with incomparable wit, “dessert.”

“…those small moments of goodness.”  Hope is what we experience in the embrace of neighbors and friends, helping one another in the wake of devastation from hurricanes and tornados.  It is present in those acts of unexpected kindness from complete strangers.  Red Cross volunteers from the Dakotas, Arizona and many other states are already heading to Texas to offer assistance, and many organizations, like Airbnb, food banks– even diaper banks for those families with infants and toddlers–have already sprang into action, all of these efforts so necessary and vital in re-igniting hope and healing.

Healing, which is sometimes simplified in the way we think of it, is more than medicine and treatments.  Healing, in the truest sense of the word, is the process of “becoming whole,” whether from a natural disaster or a cancer diagnosis.  It is a multi-faceted process of transformation.  There is a strong connection of mind and body in healing, and hope plays a central role.  In studies exploring the impact of hope among cancer patients, researchers conclude that hope helps decrease patient anxiety and increase quality of life. Even among the terminally ill, hope is an essential resource.  It helps us cope during times of intense physical and psychological distress.

Where can we find hope?  It’s present in test results that show a shrinking tumor or promising clinical trials of a new therapy; it’s hope that’s ignited in those unexpected acts of kindness from strangers.  Hope resides a child’s delight in finding a tree frog as he explores his own yard, in an infant’s first smile, a young woman offering her seat on the subway to an elderly person, or a bouquet of summer dandelions picked for a mother by her child.  Hope waits to be discovered, like in springtime, when determined crocuses poke their heads through snow and ice at winter’s end or the brilliant explosion of color in autumn as mornings turn cool.

I know I sometimes have to stop and remember to look for those small moments of goodness—of hope—when I find my spirits sagging in the frustrations of daily life, human crises, or the constant thrum of divisive political discourse.  Hope sometimes seems to get lost.   But I can find it if I only stop to notice:  a hug from a grandchild, singing together with a random crowd of people at an evening of “Choir! Choir! Choir!” or walking my dog through the park and watching her unflagging hope of catching a squirrel (she never does, but she never gives up either).  It’s in these small moments of goodness and delight that reminds me of the resilience of the human spirit, and hope, then,” springs eternal.”

Tomorrow will be beautiful

For tomorrow comes out of the lake.

(“Hope,” by Emanuel Carnevali, in Poetry:  A Magazine of Verse, 1921)

 

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, consider hope.  How would you define it if asked?
  • When have you felt as if you were losing hope?  Why?  What changed?
  • What helped you regain a sense hope?
  • When have you discovered hope in a “small moment of goodness? “Describe it.

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There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published.  Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative.  It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.  –William Zinsser (“How to Write a Memoir,” In:  The American Scholar, Spring 2006.)

Many years ago, I attended a summer creative writing workshop led by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and with Others. Still numb and disbelieving from completing a seven-week regimen of radiation for early stage breast cancer, I’d signed up for the workshop at the urging of a dear friend.

The first morning, I sat in a circle of men and women feeling a wave of uncertainty.  Why was I there?  What was I going to write?  I half-listened as Pat introduced the workshop, my notebook open and waiting.  “Tell me something I can’t forget.” she said, quoting a line from a Tess Gallagher’s poem, “Each Bird Walking,”” in which the female narrator asks her lover to  “Tell me… something I can’t forget” (lines 50-51), and he responds by telling her how, as an adult man, he had the task of bathing his dying mother.  (From:  Willingly, 1984)

Tell me something I can’t forget.  I drew a blank.  What in my life might be memorable to another?  I had only a few minutes to write, so I began with what was most accessible: childhood memories, humorous stories told and re-told at family gatherings.  It would take nearly a full week of writing before I opened the door to my experience of cancer, and while I didn’t think of myself as a cancer patient or survivor, so treatable was my diagnosis,  I began to understand how cancer—even early stage—had already altered my life.  From that point on, my writing opened and deepened into the life experiences that had defined and changed me as a person.

“A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller…a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.  To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story”– Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (p.46).

“Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff remarked in her book, The Alchemy of Illness, 2000). Duff was writing out of her experience with CFIDS (chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction.  Writing out of a cancer diagnosis or any significant and painful life experience can help repair the damage done to your lives, to your sense of who you are, or explore the disrupted futures you might face.  Writing together, as those in my expressive writing groups do, allows you to tell your stories and share your experiences.  We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover what is most meaningful. “I did not want my questions answered,” Arthur Frank wrote, describing, his illness in At the Will of the Body.  “I wanted my experience shared.”  In doing so, we remember who we were, and we learn who we are becoming.  Cancer–or any significant or painful life event–changes us and, perhaps, has the capacity to “remodel us,” as poet Jane Hirshfield said, “for some new fate.”

 In my experience, ill people become more themselves, as if once the excess was stripped away only the truest core of themselves remained… An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears–Alice Hoffman (In: “Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” NY Times, August 2000.)

Hoffman wrote for during her ten months of cancer treatment to find “a way to make sense out of sorrow and loss.”  Indeed, to be healing, writing demands you examine the tough chapters of your life, learn from them and take that knowledge into your present life.  “Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank wrote in his memoir, At the Will of the Body.  It’s not just cancer that teaches us.  As Hoffman notes, any momentous, challenging chapter of our lives has the potential for significant learning.

I am the only one who can tell my story and say what it means.– Dorothy  Allison

Writing as a way of healing isn’t just a process of pouring your sorrow and pain on the page.  To truly learn from your experiences requires something greater of you–the courage, as Maxine Hong Kingston tells the war veterans who write with her, to “tell the truth.”  Writing honestly requires courage.  It may seem difficult at first, because you have to be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of the events to do some hard soul-searching.  You may begin with cancer, but invariably, you find yourself going deeper into your life and the events that shaped you, old wounds that have yet to heal to discover the truth of your experience.   It’s then that the potential for healing begins.

To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story.  Cancer is rarely the whole story, but it often leads us to the stories and experiences in our lives that matter most.  What is the story you want to tell?

Writing Suggestion:

  • Begin with Tess Gallagher’s line, “Tell me something I can’t forget,” and begin writing freely, without stopping for fifteen minutes.
  • When you’re finished, re-read it.  What stands out?  Use a yellow highlighter to mark those passages.
  • Use the one highlighted phrase or sentence that most grabs your attention and begin again.  How does the second version differ from the first?  What insights do you discover?

Write hard and clear about what hurts.  – Ernest Hemingway

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Maggie and I made our usual stroll through the neighborhood park as we do each morning.  Although she’s much more interested in squirrel patrol than the other dogs who arrive with their owners for a romp in the off leash hours of early morning, we always stop to greet other dogs and people for a few minutes.  Invariably, the introductions begin, both human and canine, and with that, the frequent question to me:  “You mean you moved from California to Canada?”  Yes, I explain, we decided to return to Toronto after many years away.  “But the winter here; how could you leave a place with such great weather?”

My explanation is as familiar as the question I’ve been asked so many times.  I’ve longed for the changes and colors of four distinct seasons.  I felt, in a place of temperate year-round weather and seemingly constant sunshine, as arid and thirsty as the landscape.  For some, and I’m one, my spirit and creativity are fed by the predictability of Nature’s changing seasons—but then, I grew up in a place where all four seasons arrived on their designated calendar dates and each offered new discoveries, colors, smells, and adventure for a young girl. I feel more “at home” in a place where Nature’s colors and moods are more distinct, just as the little field mouse, Frederick, expressed when he recited his poem to his small companions during the long winter months:  “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four?/Think of a year with one less…or one more!”(From:  Frederick, by Leo Lionni, 1967)

The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death, written by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall in 1967, described how Nature’s seasons are not only metaphors for life’s journey, but how human life is intimately connected to the seasons, for example, the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, or growth and harvesting of the crops (University of Michigan Press, 1997).  The ancient Greeks defined life’s stages as seasons: childhood was spring; youth became summer; autumn described adulthood, and winter, the metaphor for old age.

This cyclical nature of life and living reflects what we witness in nature. I recall a French Canadian film the title long forgotten, where two characters were talking of aging, one, uncomfortable with growing older, but the other seeing their ages differently, as  autumn,  which she called “the other side of spring.”  I have thought of her definition often as I’ve grown older.  My life is still colorful and vibrant, but I also know life’s colors will gradually fade as I move toward elderhood and the winter of my life.

Seasons figure in discussions of the different stages of illness and cancer.  In a 2009 article in Cure Today, Kenneth Miller, MD, described four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.  His observations were informed by his patients’ experiences, and by his wife’s. In this excerpt, he compares her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature:

I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way. (http://www.curetoday.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/article.show/id/2/article_id/1142)

Miller then defined what he termed as the four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.

  1. Acute survivorship: when a person is diagnosed and treated.
  2. Transitional survivorship: when celebration is blended with worry and loss as a patient pulls away from the treatment team.
  3. Extended survivorship: includes those who are living with cancer as a chronic disease and individuals in remission because of ongoing treatment.
  4. Permanent survivorship: people who are in remission and asymptomatic, or,
    cancer-free but not free of cancer because of chronic late and long-term health or psychosocial problems. Others may even develop secondary cancers related to cancer treatment, or develop second cancers not related to the first cancer or its treatment.

We use the metaphors of seasons to describe many things, but seasons may be more than just metaphorical when it comes to the cancer journey.  In a 2007 study, researchers from Norway and Oregon found evidence suggesting that men diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer or autumn had better survival rates.  Vitamin D—the sunshine vitamin–plays a part.  In other studies with early stage lung cancer patients, high concentrations of Vitamin D appeared to contribute to a better survival rate post-surgery.  Patients whose surgeries occurred in sunny months (May – August) had a 30% higher survival rate than those who had surgery in winter. “Season,” epidemiologist David Christiani noted, “had a pretty strong effect.”

Whether diagnosed or treated with cancer in summer or winter, the seasons of an illness may dominate our lives and how we think of our experiences.   Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she struggled with breast cancer.  Dan Matthews, using seasons as metaphor, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in a poetry collection:   Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (Aragon Publishing, 2007).  John Sokol wrote about his cancer in a poetry collection entitled In the Summer of Cancer.  And in one of my favorite poems by Barbara Crooker, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” the season of springtime signals a time renewal and rejuvenation:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

 

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)

For now, I look out my window across the street to the park, where trees are plentiful, offering a verdant canopy of shade and even, during a downpour (as Maggie and I discovered) a natural umbrella, and smile, remembering a favorite e.e.cummings’ poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(“I thank You God for this most amazing,” in Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

Whatever season or landscape that offers you solace and inspiration, or is an apt metaphor for whatever stage of life you are experiencing, why not write about it?

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons that have been important or significant to you in some way.
  • If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” was the most difficult to endure?  Why?
  • Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience.

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Because of my involvement in the cancer community, I’m the frequent recipient of unsolicited emails or Facebook invitations, all dealing, to a greater or lesser degree, with cancer, whether one individual’s journey or a cancer support organization.  Despite my work, I sometimes feel inundated by the amount of unsolicited requests I receive.  Occasionally, however, I stumble onto a treasure.  A few years ago, I received an email from Sister Anne Higgins, the author of a 2007 book of poetry and blog site, both entitled Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. I was intrigued and explored her writing, discovering a beautiful blend of narrative, photographs and poetry.  She later sent me several of her poems, written during her cancer treatment, and one in particular, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” triggered memories of the experience I had several years before.  It begins, “Here is the club you never want to join…”

I remembered a telephone call I received from a cancer survivor shortly after I was first diagnosed and scheduled to begin seven weeks of radiation therapy.  “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.”  While I appreciated her call, I certainly didn’t desire a membership in that “private” club.  Never a joiner during high school and college, I assiduously avoided campus clubs and sororities.  This time, however, it turned out I didn’t have a choice.

I existed in a state of denial for weeks, refusing to accept that life had forced me into the cancer club.  It was only weeks later, in a summer creative writing class, that I acknowledged the fact of this new membership.  Given the prompt, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I began writing.  “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me:  men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy.  Some with hair; others without.  We are all members of a private club.  We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”

How many times have you felt forced into circumstances—those unwanted “clubs”—by what life deals from its deck of cards?  Joan, a former writing group member in treatment for kidney cancer, described the shock of being dealt the cancer card:

Hit me.

Two cards down.  Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing cards, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.

Cancer is one of the life cards we don’t want to be dealt, just like job loss, trauma, heart attack,  or sudden death of a loved one—the list is long.  We object to memberships or labels we didn’t choose:  cancer survivors, heart patients, war veterans, single parents, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disabilities, parents of children with developmental delays or special needs…and more.  We don’t want to join these clubs, but we sometimes find ourselves thrust into them and do our best to deny the labels we’ve been given, like “cancer patient.” Labels make us feel exposed, as if we’re different, not the people we’ve always been.  Molly Redmond describes these feelings in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back:”

It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

 

We protest, even deny we’re part of this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

 

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

 

(Poetry from:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

There is a flip side to pulling the cancer (or another unwanted) card.  While I remain uncomfortable with any attempt to be classified into different groups like cancer survivor, heart patient, or even senior citizen, there may be some unexpected benefits to having the unwanted cancer card, as some survivors have discovered.

When you go through the experience of fighting cancer,” Jamie Bendola wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article, “it is most likely the hardest thing that you will have to do in your life. It’s like a marathon (if marathons included surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy), but at the end there’s no shiny medal to hang around your neck.”

“You do, however, get to pull the “cancer card… I’m not saying you should cut people in line at the movie theater and say, “Well I had cancer so you can just wait behind me…” It doesn’t work that way. There are certain times though when you can pull this card for your benefit… different grants you can apply for, medical programs, etc.  When I had to have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy performed last year, I pulled the cancer card and all of my procedures were covered by Susan G. Komen.”

Susan Guber, writing in the “Well” blog of the New York Times, pointed to stand-up comedian Robert Schimmel, a cancer survivor, speeding to the hospital with his wife, when a policeman stopped them.  “Mr. Schimmel imagined what the officer was thinking: “Damn. This guy looks like,” followed by an expletive. “What if he’s dying, chemo’s his only hope, and he misses his treatment because I’m writing him a speeding ticket? I might be costing him his life. Do I want that on my head? That could send me straight to hell.” Cancer lets Mr. Schimmel off the hook; it is “the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Guber continues:  “Many people living with cancer use it as a ticket to reform their lives, for example, by delegating stressful responsibilities. It gives them permission to engage in productive enterprises like starting a walking regimen or volunteering for a patient advocacy group… The C card, for others, “stands for carpe diem. Whether you love fly-fishing, pedicures, rock music, photography, Bora Bora, playing with the dog, drinking, bowling, or bowling while drinking, after a cancer diagnosis you may finally find the time to follow your desires.”

Guber offers us something to think about.  You don’t have to be forced into any “club” because of the C-card.  As unwanted and difficult as it may be to be dealt a bad card from the deck of life, what matters is what you do with it.  As Randy Pausch, former professor at Carnegie Mellon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, famously said, “It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.”   (The Last Lecture, 2008)

Writing Suggestions:

  • Write about the time life dealt you the cancer card or some other unwanted hand.  Explore the experience, how it felt, how you first reacted, and what you did with your new “membership” in a club you never asked to join.
  • How have you played the hand you’ve been dealt?  What advice do you have for others who have been dealt “bad” hands in life?

 

 

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