Living With Metastasis: Writing Your Way Through Cancer
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, in January 2006, I was given an envelope full of information, pamphlets about available resources, a calendar (to track all the appointments) and a journal for chronicling, “my breast cancer journey.”
While I had kept a journal for brief periods of my life in the past (and most actively while travelling), I set this one aside. I was far too overwhelmed with absorbing information and trying not to feel overwhelmed to contemplate keeping a personal diary of my feelings.
I did however, choose to start a blog. For most of my professional life, I did some form of communications or public relations work. I was strongly motivated to control the “message” around my breast cancer. I wanted to be the one to determine the Who, What, Where and When (if not the Why) of my cancer and its treatment. I also saw writing, as a way to process my experiences, as an important side benefit.
I could never have predicted how important my blog would come to my survival. I thrived on the connections I made, the community to whom I connected and, in opening myself up to others, I began to feel much stronger and more confident.
Writing the blog also led to my involvement with BlogHer, an invitation to turn it all into a book and many other writing opportunities. I am proud and glad of all of these things but none have given me as much as the very process of writing.
Shortly after being diagnosed with liver metastasis, I was hospitalized for a few days. One of the first t things I did when I arrived home was write a love letter to my blog. Writing has helped to get through the darkest of times and to celebrate the good ones.
Late in 2007, I began to realize that I was undergoing an identify shift. As opposed to a person who liked to write, I had begun to think of myself as a Writer. I liked that feeling and sought to find ways to move further down this path of self discovery.
With my pen in hand (morning pages, which I didn’t always do in the morning, are ideally done free hand, without stopping). It felt really awkward and stiff at first. My writing seemed embarrassingly angst ridden. But every day became a little easier and even on the hardest days, there was always a nugget of something, an ‘aha!’ moment, that made it worth doing the work.
Once I had worked through the twelve weeks of the program, I tried to do my morning pages on the computer. After a few days, of this, I switched back to writing by hand as I noticed that, when I typed, I stopped to correct my punctuation, re-read my words and sometimes to delete what I’ve written. Natalie Goldberg writes in her wildly popular writers’ handbook,Writing Down the Bones:
"When I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more directly connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.”
I find this to be true for me as well (except that I use a computer for stories, instead of a typewriter!).
In the past, I think I rejected the process of journaling because I didn’t understand its purpose. I realize now that writing is meditation and that it can be better than a session with a therapist. When something is bugging me, I can sit down with a pen and paper and work it all through. I wish I had known that years ago, when I dismissed the value of keeping a journal because it felt too much like navel gazing.
Before my most recent CT scan, I was wracked with anxiety. There were moments when I actually felt wild with panic, like I had to fight to keep breathing. On the Sunday afternoon, I sat down to write. This simple process acted like a balm. I wrote every day for the rest of that week and felt infinitely calmer. Naming my fears helped me feel like I would deal with whatever came up.
I filled a whole notebook in September. Tomorrow, I will go and buy a new one.
You can read more of my writing at Not Just About Cancer.
These are three resources I recommend. I would love to hear any suggestions that you might have.
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.
Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.