My first diagnosis of breast cancer was a surprise. I was too young. There was no breast cancer in the family, but this rational defense didn’t stop what was to be: four diagnoses and eight surgeries and treatments from 1993-1998, dominating and changing my life.
I am two decades away from that first biopsy surgery. Looking back, and especially looking back through my writing, helps me to know how I felt and how over time, my feelings changed. In those early days I was stunned. While I waited for the biopsy surgery results, I kept my mind as far away from my feelings as I could. But when another diagnosis came the following year, and after a blessed free year, two more came, I knew how I felt. I have an essay in Living on The Margins: Women Writers on Breast Cancer. I call the essay, “Cancer Says” because cancer has a voice. I realized that I had a voice, too, though it was soft and I had hardly ever used it except for writing short stories, and they were quiet, as well. The voice in “Cancer Says” grew by use, by writing essays and articles. And it was deepened, as was the whole of me, by the sessions I came to create and lead in the book: Writing &Healing: A Mindful Guide for Cancer Survivors.
In those 5 years, I lost my body and health as I had known them; lost my husband, my children to college, my house to divorce, and my community.
People saw me as a tragic figure. The more I lost, the more they dropped out of my life, as if I was contagious.
We are our body, our mind, and our spirit. My body was “cured.” The cancer was cut from me. I was so grateful for that. But, the rest of me was in need of deep healing. The definition of healing — to be made whole and sound — fit exactly what I needed. Many cancer survivors feel this same need. Treatment is over — and you don’t know what to do next. I was literally all alone. Fortunately, there was a little spark of hope in me. I was still a writer and teacher and I could create something that might help me and others during and after cancer.
I had graces that visited my life in that period, too. I had been accepted into an MFA in writing program before my first surgery and graduated after my last. My job was with children with emotional and learning challenges, and I used writing prompts (pictures, poems, drawings, and more) to prompt them to write short, creative pieces — which usually turned out to about some part of them. For instance, the picture of the man at the stove became a story about no one being at home for dinner. The act of writing it was a release. During my first diagnosis, I attended the Mind Body Clinic in Boston, which touched on the many ways the mind affects the body — and the body the mind. All of us were in treatment at the time. I also went to a 9-day Insight Meditation Retreat where I learned to follow my breath to a restorative silence.
And I would go on after cancer, and after a move, and after marrying again in 1999 — this time to a person who believed in what I was doing. In 2000 I began another graduate program (where I then taught Therapeutic Writing for almost a decade) and created the 12 sessions for my book Writing & Healing: A Mindful Guide for Cancer Survivors. Since I needed healing, I made sure each session was about releasing stress and negative feelings and promoting health. Sessions 1-6: Safe Place to Self Care; Sessions 7-12: Inner Healer to Harvest in Gratitude. I also put everything I knew to be healing into the sessions. A guided meditation precedes the writing exercises, so we are writing from a deeper, more relaxed state. In 2001 I began to lead the sessions at a local hospital. I have most recently led the sessions at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
The sessions and the book provide a one-stop place for writing, guided meditation, creativity, mindfulness, sharing, witnessing, and community. No one is asked to write about how they felt about cancer or what hurts. The writing is a short, creative 5-minute piece in response to a “prompt,” which might be a picture or an object picked from a basket. It could be a response to music or a cartoon card. So you might write the story of the cartoon character. But there is often something you need to say about you in it. Not always, but often. And that’s where the feeling better, the becoming more whole and less broken lies.
The healing of the book is also in the meditations and the themes of the sessions. “Safe Place” is the first, followed by “The Breath” and “Writing in Stillness.” Session three is “Beneath the Surface with Words” and four, “Feelings Through Story.” Five helps you to know the voice you use and the voice of your story while six is “Self-Care.” Seven and eight are “Inner Healer” and “Beneath the Surface with Music.” Nine through eleven are “Negative Feelings in Safety,” “Freedom from Others,” and “Freedom for Self.” The final session is “Gratitude.” There is always gratitude for something. This is how we heal.
This is how we write. I might write that I am a piece of lace (because I picked the lace out of a basket of objects). I might write, “My name is Sally and I have been saved. Someone found me in an attic trunk and put me in a glass bowl. I was in the attic for 80 years. The great-granddaughter of the woman who made me has recognized my value. Finally someone has. Just when it seemed the next rain would come through the trunk and I’d be even more damaged….she came along. Never give up hope, I tell people. Never.”
The book has been carefully created to flow with creativity and words, but to also provide a guide for leading and following sessions. Also included is a meditation CD. You can gather your own group and meet regularly, or you can choose to be led by a professional. You can follow it on your own as long as you have someone with whom to share your writing.
Peri Ozker, an acupuncturist in Massachusetts, was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s and later had a recurrence. She was a participant in one of my Writing & Healing groups.
“After each writing session, we’d share,” says Ozker. “So it was also the sharing of what you’d written, and often the writings ended up with deep emotional significance to the person. So it’s not just the writing; it’s reading what you wrote just then, out loud — wow, does that ever free things up and bring them to the surface. There’s no critique — it’s just about the experience of listening to yourself and others, and appreciating whatever impact that brings to your ears, and also to witness the impact that person is having at that moment of time with their own words. We were all coming at it from different angles and life experiences, but the common themes were definitely nature. Nature, sky, things you notice as a kid, those were things that came up, so it’s really interesting that so much of healing is tied to that aspect.”
Another participant said, “The more I write, the lighter I feel, as if the stories — the heaviness of my history — fall from my shoulders one by one.”
Ozker says, “The first time I was diagnosed, all I wanted was to get back to normal life. The second time, I realized there was no normal. I wanted a new normal and I didn’t know how. But it will create itself as you process your experience. That is the healing aspect. It comes from within and it takes some time, and these writing sessions allow that to happen.”
Stay tuned for future blog posts, which will concentrate on a theme of the book and a short exercise.