I’ve been thinking about how much our daily lives have changed as the COVID lockdowns continue here. More than that, I think about what it is that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis, how the small daily routines or household tasks keep me going, providing a sense of normality to our lives even though this prolonged period of social distancing and relative isolation continues without any sure end in sight. I’m not alone in fending off boredom, feelings of malaise or that constant low-level anxiety that is part of the uncertainly of this strange and isolating time. Heart failure puts me in a higher risk category for contracting COVID just as those of you living with cancer, undergoing treatment and continuing recovery, and in many cases, your diagnoses pre-dating the onset and rapid spread of the current pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the title of a recent article got my attention: “It has been easier to cope with my cancer during lockdown” British author Susie Steiner wrote in a recent issue of The Guardian/Books. In treatment of a brain tumor, she opened her article saying “I wrote my latest novel…with a 9cm tumor pushing my brain over its midline. But I didn’t know about it.” Even more ironically, Steiner wrote, “…I was plotting a cancer storyline, not yet knowing that I had cancer.”
“So much of the experience of cancer is the waiting rooms,” Steiner said, “is the hard chairs, the inequality between patients and medical staff—you feel so vulnerable in your elasticated slacks with your terrible hair…waiting for them, terrified, in the Room of Bad News.” Yet she writes that it has been easier for her to cope with her cancer during lockdown knowing she was not the only one whose life was on hold nor fearful of contracting the virus and possibly dying.
Cold comfort perhaps, but like cancer, we’re all in a kind of waiting game, in limbo, taking greater precautions, dumping the plans we might have had for travel or evenings socializing with friends, amassing a supply of face masks to last however long this pandemic continues to spread. She quoted Christopher Hutchins, author of Mortality, a collection of essays about his struggle with esophageal cancer. He described cancer as “stasis… a bit like lockdown, you spend your time in treatment, saying to yourself, “I just have to get through this, then I’ll get my life back.”
Nevertheless, Steiner writes “it has been easier, weirdly, to cope with my illness during lockdown, because I’m not the only one whose life is on hold, not the only one terrified of dying…” What has comforted her—and what I find I have also found invaluable–are books. “One thing you can do a lot of when you’re a patient,” she remarks, “is reading.”
The idea that reading for healing, like writing, is not new. Jenni Odgen, PhD, writing in Psychology Today, notes that Sigmund Freud was known to incorporate literature into his psychoanalytic practice in the late 1800’s, and even King Ramses II of Egypt was known to use reading for healing, keeping a special chamber for his books with the words “House of Healing for the Soul” above the door. The term “bibliotherapy,” the art of using books to help people solve personal issues, was first used in 1916. It now takes many different forms, including literature courses for prison inmates to reading groups for elders suffering from dementia (“Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey, New Yorker, June 9, 2015) . In fact, two or three years ago, I stumbled onto The Novel Cure, written and published by two bibliotherapists, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin in 2017. Written something like a medical dictionary, it matches ailments and illnesses with suggested reading “cures,” including having cancer and caring for someone with it.
Reading, whether for pleasure, information or healing, helps us to navigate periods of isolation, boredom, and worry. Dovey cites research that demonstrates how reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation, bringing the same benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers, she notes, sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than non-readers. Quoting the author Jeannette Winterson, she adds, “fiction and poetry are doses, medicines…what they heal is the rupture reality makes on imagination.”
My husband and I have also been devouring books for the past many weeks. He’s gone from a diet of current affairs and research psychology to poetry; I’ve added several non-fiction books, especially biographies of artists and writers, to my own regular stash of novels. Books are as comforting to us even now as they were when we were children, sneaking our books to bed and reading with a flashlight under the covers, learning about others and the world beyond the borders of our small towns. In this time of COVID, books—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—have been indispensable to ignite our imagination, interest and combat the boredom on those days when our moods can turn as grey as a dull overcast day.
Susie Steiner, in her article for The Guardian, describes how her reading changed during the course of her cancer treatment, and why she turned to books written by other cancer survivors. She was hungry, she said, for what she called “fellow feeling.” Living like this is gruelling,” she wrote, “ we need imaginative empathy in fiction to help us through it.”
This is surely the … therapeutic power of literature – it doesn’t just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it – it takes us places we hadn’t imagined but which, once seen, we never forget. When literature is working – the right words in the right place – it offers an orderliness which can shore up readers against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them.—Blake Morrison, “The Reading Cure,” The Guardian/Books/ January 5, 2008.
- What is helping you get through this time?
- Whether you are actively dealing with cancer or well into recovery, have you found comfort or inspiration from any books?
- Have you learned anything new or helpful about navigating the ups and downs of cancer?
- What books—any genre—would you recommend to others? And why?