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Dear Readers:  Today we’re celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with family and friends.  Happy Thanksgiving to all our Canadian readers.  Regular posts will resume Tuesday, October 10th.

Sharon Bray

I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.― Patricia Hampl

For several years, I’ve taught  transformational writing (writing to heal) for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. At the beginning of each new course, I routinely ask my students for brief synopses of the writing project that had prompted them to enroll for the class.  Not surprisingly, most students could only describe what it was they wanted to write in the most general of terms, no matter the pain or trauma that had brought them to the course.  What they quickly learn is that writing, no matter the genre or form, is always an act of discovery.

We write, as author Patricia Hampl  said, not about what we know, but to find out what we know.  Plumb the depths of sorrow, suffering or trauma, and you find question upon question.  Writing ultimately leads you to some answers, but it demands you stay open to the possibility of surprise, of discovering that what you thought you were going to write may not be what is written at all.  The answers we seek, whether in life or in fiction, are gradually revealed.  We struggle for answers and grope blindly in the darkness before we stumble on a new insight, or new direction.  E.L. Doctorow, award winning novelist, summed up the process of writing a story:  “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Living with cancer is not unlike the trip Doctorow describes. Diagnosis introduces a multitude of questions, ones you can ask your doctors; others that keep you awake during the night.  You get through the surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, but even after all that, you still can’t see too far ahead, despite every assurance offered.  Your life is punctuated by many more questions than answers.  “How likely is it to recur?  What if the cancer has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? How long do I have?”  The truth is that no one knows for certain.  You navigate through it all in the same way a writer writes a memoir or a novel, able to see only a short distance along the path, but trusting that little by little, you’ll find your way into the answers you seek.  For example, in a poem written during her treatment, one woman questions what she can do:

Can I? Can I just do it? Can I do it all?
Can I ration my time to allow for my priorities?
Can I ask others to share the burdens?
Can I refuse this role of superwoman?
Can I just ‘say no?’

Her questions gradually lead her to answers, actions she can take:

I can. I can just say no. I can just say,
“I’m out of the business of doing it all.”
I can take time for myself to breathe
And dream or just sit quietly.
And I will!

(“I Can’t,” by Carlene Shaff, In: ” Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry,” by Robert Carroll, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Jun; 2(2): 161–172.)

In my cancer writing groups, I sometimes use the poem, “Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors” by Elena Georgiou, as a prompt inviting participants to explore the questions they have in their lives.  Georgiou asks several questions of herself in the poem, for example:

Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?

If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?

If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?

If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?

If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?

How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?

Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?

(In: Mercy Mercy Me by Elena Georgiou. Copyright © 2000)
Georgiou offers no answers to the reader, only questions.  “Don’t search for the answers,” Maria Rainer Rilke counseled a youthful protégé in Letters to a Young Poet, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Live everything.  Live the questions…  Live the questions now.  Live your way into the answer.   Rilke’s words stay with us.  Living ourselves into the answers is not an easy thing to do, especially when we’re faced with something as life-threatening as cancer, and yet, it is all we can do.  There are no guarantees, no crystal balls to foretell our futures.  We live our way into the answers we seek.

Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life. — ― J.D. Stroube

Writing Suggestions:

  • Explore the questions you face, whether triggered by a cancer diagnosis or another unexpected difficulty. Make a list in the style of Georgiou’s poem.  Then choose one and begin writing.  After 15 – 20 minutes, stop.  Reread what you’ve written.  Did you discover anything new? Keep writing.  You just may write yourself into some of the answers you seek.
  • Think of a time earlier in your life.  What questions did you have and how did you have live your way into answers?  What did you discover?  Which questions seemed most persistent?  Looking back, how were your questions resolved?

 

If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”                 German philosopher, Meister Eckhart

In a time when we are constantly confronted with world crises–the devastation of Nature’s wrath, global warming,  poverty, famine, war or terrorist attacks on innocent people, or living with a life- threatening illness like cancer–life may seem overwhelming, and it can it be difficult to remember or feel gratitude. Yet every time I watch the evening news, there’s a story, an example, of individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by crisis or tragedy expressing gratitude for whatever help, hope or unexpected acts of kindness they discover among the rubble of their lives.  It always gives me pause for thought–a little nudge to not “let the turkeys” get me down.

Last night, tired from a busy weekend, I restlessly flipped through channel after channel of football, before settling on the final segments of CBS’s 60 Minutes.  I’m glad I did.  Senator John McCain, recently diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most virulent and deadly forms of brain cancer, was being interviewed by broadcast journalist, Leslie Stahl.  McCain,  a POW during the Vietnam War, is no stranger to suffering, yet his spirit and determination–qualities that likely helped him survive the torture and hardship in a POW camp–are as strong as ever.  When his doctors confirmed his cancer diagnosis, he responded by saying,  “I understand. Now we’re going to do what we can, get the best doctors we can find and do the best we can.’ And, at the same time, celebrate with gratitude a life well lived.”

McCain begins his day with chemotherapy and radiation before he goes to work in the Senate, explaining this to Stahl  as being “more energetic and more engaged as a result of this because I know that I’ve got to do everything I can to serve this country while I can.”  The senator admitted that sometimes, yes, he feels fear about what may happen, but he reminds himself that he has experienced a great life and celebrates it with gratitude.  “I am so grateful,” he remarked near the end of the interview, “every night I am filled with gratitude.”

Gratitude, as McCain likely knows well,  is good for us.  A sizeable body of research has been conducted on the positive effects of gratitude, including its emotional and interpersonal benefits.  For example, research suggests that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.  Other studies show that those who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives, and are generally more optimistic.  Grateful individuals also report more positive connections with others, satisfaction with their lives, and demonstrate a greater tendency towards empathy and generosity toward others   (McCullough et al, 2002- 2003).

“…celebrate with gratitude for a life well lived.”  McCain’s interview gave me pause.  I’ve been hovering on the brink of feeling sorry for myself in the wake of a computer crash, the dull pain of an arthritic knee, and a host of bureaucratic frustrations as I re-settle in Toronto.  Little by little, things continue to improve, but it doesn’t take much some days to find anger, worry or frustration seeping into my thoughts and coloring my mood.  I know how powerful gratitude is, but despite that, I am challenged, some days, to  consciously re-direct my thoughts to the things in life that keep me going, provide solace, joy and gratitude.  In a world so fraught with divisiveness, crises, suffering and fear, gratitude becomes all the more important.

In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer―Letters and Papers from Prison

Gratitude was on my mind last week when I met with the executive director of Toronto’s Gilda’s Club  just as it had been two weeks earlier, when I met with the executive director at Wellspring, a cancer support services organization in the greater Toronto area.   The services and support offered to those living with cancer encourages gratitude–even in the midst of something as devastating as cancer.  I was reminded that while I have loved returning to this city, I have greatly missed the expressive writing groups I led for so many years in California, and I was grateful that both Toronto organizations welcomed me and having an opportunity for us to learn about one another.

As I described my  expressive writing programs, I recalled how many years earlier, when I first came to as a recently widowed single parent, how very raw and emotional I had been with grief.  I began seeing a therapist, and as the sessions progressed, I cautiously began to bring a poem I’d written –poems that spoke to what I was feeling, struggling with, trying to resolve.  A routine developed between us, one that would influence not only my healing, but the workshops I would later lead for cancer patients.   At the beginning of the session, I read the poem aloud then gave my therapist a copy.  He never questioned nor attempt to interpret what I had written.  Instead, he responded only with gratitude, just two words, “thank you,” that did more, in those vulnerable weeks, to build trust, self-affirmation and buoy my spirits than, perhaps, anything.  To this day, when someone volunteers to read aloud in my writing groups, I respond immediately with those same two words, “thank you,” so powerful is the gift of gratitude to the human spirit.

So today, I focus on gratitude.  I’m grateful for the first signs of autumn in the maple trees outside our windows, for the companionship and conversation with old friends over a Sunday lunch, for the latte my husband brought me from the cafe across the street this morning.  But in particular, I’m grateful I paused to stop flipping television channels and hear the interview with Senator McCain.  It was a well-timed “listen up” to help me right my sagging mood at the end of a trying week.

Gratitude is infectious.  Try it on for size today or this week if you find yourself slipping into self-pity or sorrow.  Take a walk.  Remember what you have that gives you joy.  Pause at a tree, its colors turning in the first days of autumn.  Remember to say those two simple words, “thank you,” to a loved one, the cashier at the market, the awkward teenager who suddenly remembers the lesson his parents have tried to teach him and opens the door to let an elder person pass through before him.  “Thank you.”  It’s a little infusion of gratitude.  And when the world gets us down, it’s all the more important we stop and remember what we are grateful for.

This is what life does.  It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…

…And then life lets you go home to think
about all this.  Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out.  This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…

 

(From:  “Starfish,” by Eleanor Lerman, in: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

 

Writing Suggestion:

Is life getting you down?  This week, take some time to write down one thing you are grateful for each morning.  That’s it:  just one.  As the week progresses, return to those few sentences and reflect on the power of gratitude.  Did anything change?  If so, how?  If not, explore that.  Write a short poem or narrative on gratitude or the power of having someone say, “thank you.”

Dear Readers,

Beginning this week, Writing Through Cancer posts will be available every Monday.  This reflects a shift in a decade of my  posting routine, but with the advent of autumn and long overdue closer proximity to my family here in Toronto, the weekends are filled with activity and cherished family time.  My blog posts will continue weekly, as always; just look for them on Monday mornings!

Warm wishes,

Sharon

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?

 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.

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?