Siri, that monotonous virtual voice of iPhone assistance, has proven to an unreliable narrator. Where I once counted on “her” for directions to my desired destination by her unflappable female voice through streets and freeways of my city and arrive at my destination without getting lost, I have been often been offered directions to places not in Toronto, but a city in Oklahoma or somewhere north of Algonquin Park. I confess that more than a few expletives have sometimes been uttered in Siri’s direction.
How, I wonder, did I ever get from point A to point B in the years I was consulting with organizations scattered all over greater Toronto or the multitude of new technology firms in Silicon Valley? But now, it seems we’ve all become seekers of much more than driving directions. We search for advice and directions for navigating our lives. Yep, there’s an app for all that. On countless mornings my husband and I turn to our mobile phones for answers to our questions. (I have dubbed my iPhone as “the fount of all available knowledge.”) Sometimes I wonder how we managed to get through adulthood without the abundance of advice and information available in today’s world.
The internet has no shortage of advice, whether we’re seeking advice on how to prepare food, get directions to places, assemble furniture, fill out required forms, deal with relationships, child-rearing, or emotional and health complaints. How did we remember directions, facts and other things before the ease of our technology gave us instant answers? I can’t help but wonder how my grandchildren will grow and learn with ever more sophisticated technologies as part of their lives.
Ask a question about anything, whether your mobile phone or the internet, and you’ll find a preponderance of information, self-help websites, blogs and books. In 2011, Dr. Jim Taylor, writing for The Huffington Post, commented that whether forced to change due to unexpected illness, hardship or loss, there was likely a book, podcast or DVD offering you a step-by-step explanation on how get through your latest life upheaval. By 2017 the self-help industry alone was valued at around $9 billion, and in 2019, at $11 billion. Now it’s estimated to grow to over $13 billion by 2021. “Contrary to the assertions of just about every self-help book that has ever been written,” Dr. Taylor wrote, “change takes incredible commitment, time, energy and effort. Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”
And making the journey yourself is something every cancer patient or survivor fully understands.
Teva Harrison, award-winning cartoonist, who wrote and illustrated In-Between Days (2016), a graphic memoir of her journey with a life-threatening cancer. “When I was first diagnosed, I made all these frantic lifestyle changes, as if I could turn back time, undo my bad luck. I think a lot of us do that…I was frantic, driven by panic,” she wrote. As her cancer progressed and treatment changed, she faced living with an ever-advancing and terminal cancer. She wrote, “If we manage to stabilize it, it’s only stable for an indeterminate while…it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way around the barricades and begins to grow again…”
Harrison’s cancer journey required she adapt to and navigate her life through constant change, yet even in the face of a terminal and progressive illness, she sought ways to enjoy what she could. “I mean, the cancer is here, and I have a life to live. And sometimes living well includes eating something made with sugar or having a glass of wine with dinner,” not something she’d likely find to be advised by the health literature, yet necessary for her. “I’m not going to be hard on myself,” she said, “I’m going to enjoy every minute I can.” Harrison did her best to enjoy the time she had left, widely mourned in Canada when she died at age 42 in the spring of 2019. Her humor, honesty and sorrow continue to be cherished for many diagnosed and living with cancer.
Thankfully, there are a wealth of excellent cancer support programs and resources for those living with cancer. Writing groups, such as I continue to lead, are one example. The shared experiences of the cancer community can be a source of comfort, making you feel less alone or saying the things you find difficult to articulate yourself. Again, and again, I witness the power of the group experience to help overcome loneliness, to give voice to feelings and fears, and, even as some face terminal diagnoses, to offer support in multiple acts of kindness—something far more meaningful than self-help books and sites can offer.
In the poem, “There’s Not a Book on How To Do This,” cancer survivor Sharon Doyle reminds us of the challenge of discovering your own way through cancer as she sketches the composition for her fall garden, her celebration of her cancer journey ending.
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.
The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer. I
don’t have cancer anymore…
…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have. One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…
(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)
“There’s not a book on how to do this…” Cancer or any major life challenge doesn’t come with the luxury of a GPS or an “app” to help us navigate through our life upheavals, fears, or grief. Yes, you may find help from others’ advice; you may have the comfort of family, friends and others, but ultimately, the journey is yours to navigate. It’s a road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs, yet with each step you take, you begin composing that new life, the one that honors where you’ve been and what you’ve discovered about yourself and the way you want to create your live going forward. That is, truly, when healing begins.
As you write, reflect on your own life journeys and life during and after cancer treatment.
- What was most helpful for you as you navigated the rough waters of profound and unexpected change?
- What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?
- Based on your experience, what advice or suggestions might you offer someone just beginning the journey through cancer?
- If you could compose a garden, painting, sculpture or collage to honor your cancer experience, what would it include?