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Archive for the ‘healing arts’ Category

Dear Readers,

Louise DeSalvo, writing in her book, On Moving (2009), puts it this way:  “The effects of moving are experienced in the body…”  I will attest to that.  My husband and I are packing up our belongings for a third time in three years, moving (thankfully) only a few floors up but the change precipitated after a summer of having our ceiling open up and flood areas of our living and dining room, not once but twice, due to the forgetfulness of an elderly tenant living above us.  Unwilling to risk a third downpour on our furniture and carpets, we’ll shortly begin the process unpacking all the many boxes that we’ve packed over the past two and a half weeks.  However, my husband is limping from an injured knee, and I have, in my attempts to do the lion’s share of boxing and lifting, put my back out…so yes, I agree, moving IS experienced in the body!

Writing Through Cancer posts will resume in mid-December.  In the interim, if you’re looking for something to write about, please do peruse the archive, where you’ll find over a year’s worth of previous posts and writing suggestions.

Wishing those of you in the U.S. a very happy Thanksgiving this day.

 

Sincerely,

Sharon

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The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings, no fewer, no more,
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

(Excerpt from “Habit” by Jane Hirshfield, in Given Sugar, Given Salt)

We are packing up our lives again:  the third time in less than three years.  Boxes are being filled, once again, with our belongings.  In a little over two weeks, we will leave our current apartment and move up four floors to another of identical size and view.  More upheaval is the last thing I desire, but after two episodes of water leaking into our living and dining area from the forgetful tenant living above us, we began to worry if another next leaking episode might occur when we were out of the apartment.  Fortunately, another unit has become available in two weeks’ time, and we have jumped at the chance to re-locate.  But for the moment, my daily routine–the small rituals that keep me grounded– has been completely undone.

In times of transition, our daily habits, ones that calm and center us are often disrupted.  The irony is, of course, that in times of upheaval, we need them most.  Quiet, meditation, time alone, a solitary walk –whatever habit nurtures our inner lives is a kind of spiritual re-fueling,  something essential to navigating the ups and downs of life.  When I cannot find time or space free of interruption or distraction, not only is my creative work is compromised, but my disposition suffers.  I become irritable, tense, and overwhelmed by all that needs doing.  I have to remember to hit the pause button and take the time I need to simply be quiet, find a little space of solitude so important to the mental and emotional space that feeds my spiritual and creative life.

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.—Virgina Woolf

Not only do everyday habits or little rituals calm and feed us, in the face of life’s passages, passages, like birth, puberty, marriage, and death, we create rituals.  Not only are they a way of honoring transitions from one life chapter to the next, but they do even more for us.  In times of uncertainty and change, our rituals help us cope.  They minimize the helplessness or depression we might feel without them.  They allow us to acknowledge and express our deepest feelings, offer a sense of meaning and connect us to what is sacred.  They also remind us of our need for connection to others, for community.  Our rituals, whether more formal or the everyday habits we have, help us navigate difficult times, providing some sense of the familiar, of constancy.  In that sense, they are healing.

What habits or “small rituals”  feed your inner life?   Whether a morning walk or run, a warm bath, meditation, a quiet time to write or simply gaze out the window, listening to music or sitting quietly in a park, we find comfort in our daily routine.   Our modern world is full of noise, rushing, busyness, and constant interruptions, competing demands.   Quiet, solitude, a space of one’s own:  all offer a different kind of nourishment and healing, no matter what change, turbulence or challenges life throws at us.

“Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.”  (From the children’s book,  Open House for Butterflies, by Ruth Krauss, 2001, illustrated by Maurice Sendak)

Your little rituals and habits are also important in creating a sense of safety and comfort in a life turned upside down by cancer.  In Rituals of Healing (1994), Jeanne Achtenberg and her colleagues discussed how rituals act as outer expressions of inner experiences, helping you relax, re-connect with yourself and the little pleasures in everyday life.  They  help you calm your mind and concentrate on positive thoughts, all important to the healing process.

Ted Kooser, poet and cancer survivor, began a routine of morning walks during his cancer recovery.  In the introduction to his book, Winter Morning Walks:  One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (2000), he described the unexpected benefit of his daily walks:

“In the autumn of 1968, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing…  One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem.  Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”

Kooser’s habit of walks in the early morning was not only important to his recovery, but to his life as a poet.  He began, again, his routine of writing daily.

This morning, as I write this post, sitting amid boxes, packing paper and a living space that seems to be unraveling a little more each day, I’ve found solace in carving out some time to write.  It was a time to pause, to re-set, be quiet and  gaze out the window–despite winter’s early blast of cold and snow–and feel a little oasis of calm.  And it showed.

“How is the day going so far?” my husband asked as he quietly made his way to the kitchen for coffee.

“It’s full,” I said,” but before I began the tense litany of my growing list of “must be done by…”  I managed to laugh. “Brace yourself,” I said.

He patted my shoulders, grateful, I think, to see that my tension had eased a bit by having a little time of solitude and quiet, enjoying my coffee and writing — my daily ritual that calms and nurtures. Today’s “must be done by” list seems a little more manageable somehow.

Writing Suggestions:

  •  What daily routines offer you some sense of solace?
  •  What has helped to calm or comfort you  in the midst of doctors’ appointments, treatment or recovery?
  • What habits or routines have helped to ease feelings of stress, pain or  suffering–or sustain you?
  • Write about your habits or “small rituals,”  the ones that feed your inner life.

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The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.  (Joyce Sutphen, from:”What the Heart Cannot Forget”)

As someone who experienced breast cancer and now lives with heart failure,  I am more aware of the physical life of my heart than ever before.  Every morning I check my blood pressure, heart rate and weight, entering the information in “Medley,” the app on my iphone developed by the team at Peter Munk Cardiac Center.  I am grateful for Medley; it keeps me attentive and more aware of heart health.  However, before my heart failure diagnosis, matters of the heart were predominantly emotional and poetic.  And even yet, those metaphors and associations are the more frequent way I describe what I’m feeling.  Think about it:  how many times do we refer to our hearts when we’re describing emotions?  Consider a few like “my heart is filled with joy; heavy with sorrow; a broken heart; a heart full of love…

The heart is a long-standing and dominant aspect of poetry and prose across cultures and most often used to describe human emotion.  Author Gail Godwin, writing the prologue to her book, Heart, quotes a number of heart references, for example:  Yeats: “the rag and bone shop of the heart,” St. Francis:  “a transformed and undefended heart,” Tony Bennett crooning, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” Jesus Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and Saul Bellow’s comment, “More die of heartbreak than radiation,” among others.  I think of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz:  “If I only had a heart…”

Well, I have a heart, and it’s still beating, with a little help from an ICD and a regimen of daily medications.  What’s more, I continue to refer memories and emotions that, as e.e. cummings described, I “carry in my heart.”  It’s no surprise, then, that one of the writing exercises I use in the expressive writing groups I lead for cancer patients is inspired by the heart; the heart, as Joyce Sutphen describes, “that cannot forget.”

Begin with a large image of a heart.  You can draw a large valentine-shaped heart or, as I prefer to do in the workshops, use an image of the human heart.  The task is to answer, in three separate steps, the larger question, “what do you carry in your heart?” Take the image and next to it or on it, write your responses to these three questions, giving a few minutes to write between each.

  1. What people, living or dead, do you carry in your heart?
  2. What places do you carry in your heart?
  3. What events or happenings in your life do you carry in your heart?

Simply list as many names or labels as you can for each question.  Once you’ve answered all three, take some time to read what you’ve written on your heart.  Now, choose one thing–person, place or event–that seems to hold the most pull or power for you.  Take a clean sheet of paper and for 15 – 20 minutes, begin writing about that person, place or event–whether a narrative or a poem or just free association, it doesn’t matter.  Keep writing for the allotted time.  Do not stop to edit or re-read until the time is up.

The stories that are written in  this exercise are often emotional, yes, but they are also more “alive,” descriptive and engaging, coming “straight from the heart.”  Even the most reluctant writer, the one who says, “but I’m not a writer,” will surprise herself with the writing that emerges from the heart exercise.

If you are one who would like to write but doesn’t know how to begin, this exercise can be a great way to get started and a way to begin to capture the stories of your life.  Writing about what matters, what has shaped and defined you, is also a way of release, often a way to express difficult events and emotions that are sometimes bad for your health.  Everyone has stories to tell.  As I often say to those who’ve attend my cancer writing groups, often shy about writing, “if you don’t tell your story, who will?”

…I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do:  listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them.  I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality.  Being remembered.  (From:  The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer, 2015.)

I’ve had a few medical experiences in my life, just as you have–near death, neurosurgery, breast cancer–and now I live with heart failure. Sooner or later, we “get” that we are not immortal. My cancer experience was so very treatable, compared to those who come to my groups, and yet, I think whether you live with  cancer or with a heart condition or other serious illness, it makes you more aware of what matters most in your life.  As Judith Cofer described, I am aware that the stories of our lives, the places, events and people who were helped to define and shape who I have become is the legacy I have to pass on to my daughters and grandchildren.  To remember.  To be remembered.   “Death, as Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Bull,” steals everything but our stories.”

I am the only one who can tell my stories and say what they mean.  (Dorothy Allison, in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.)

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To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…

(“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” Songwriter:  Pete Seeger)

When the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was recorded released in 1965 by the rock group, The Byrds, it quickly captured the sentiments of the time and rose and to number one on Billboard’s “Hot 100.”  The Byrds were not the first to record the song.  Their version was preceded by a 1962 recording by the Limelighters and by Pete Seeger on his album, The Bitter and the Sweet.  Over the next several years,  other artists also recorded the song, including Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton and Nina Simone.  Is it any wonder?  The words from Ecclesiastes describe life’s journey, the inevitability of its cycles and seasons, the story of the entire lifespan.

There’s something about the approaching autumn, for me,  that invites more quiet reflection, a daily tumble of memories triggered by the shift in temperature, trees beginning to turn color, the scent of the air.  “The other side of spring,” a character called autumn in a long ago French film.  It’s an apt metaphor for aging, which we all become more aware of as the years pass.  I think of my own life now as synonymous with autumn, reminding me of how human life is so intimately connected to Nature’s seasons–metaphorically and physically.

Henry David Thoreau, famous for his book, Walden, saw the seasons as symbolic of human life.   Just as plants go through stages such as bud, leaf, flower, and fruit, or seed, seedling, and tree, he observed that man, too, experienced similar stages of development throughout the life span.  However, his observations were not entirely novel.  The  ancient Greeks also saw seasons as metaphors for life’s different stages.   Childhood was synonymous with spring and youth with summer.  Autumn described adulthood and winter, old age.   The Seasons of Life:  Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death,  by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall, also explored how our life journeys mirror Nature’s seasons.  Using biographical sketches of real people at all life stages or “seasons,” they demonstrated how our lives are influenced by them, as well as  the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, and  growth and harvesting of crops.

It’s hardly a surprise that seasons also affect our  health–something I’m reminded of as I’ve felt a dull ache in my fingers these past couple of weeks as I write.   Whether allergies during spring and summer, colds and flu in the winter, or even the discomfort of arthritis as weather cools, many of us have experienced these common health issues many times over.   The BBC reported a study where researchers analyzed blood and tissue samples from more than 16,000 people living around the world.  Of all the genes they scrutinized, they were most interested in the ones involved with immunity and inflammation. Not surprisingly, during the cold months of winter, those genes were more active for people living north of the equator.

Yet there’s more. Have you ever found yourself feeling a little out of sorts on those days that winter weather keeps you indoors?  While I complained of “relentless” sunshine when my husband and I lived in Southern California, preferring, instead, four distinct seasons, I’ll admit to feeling glum now and then when winter seems to be especially harsh or unending.  I’m not unusual.  Seasonal can changes affect our moods.   I used to attribute those grey days to my being “weather sensitive,” but that was long before I learned about “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD).  According to Psychology Today, some people do experience a seasonal depression that doctors feel may be related to changing levels of light.  SAD can range from mild to debilitating for several months at a time.

Seasonal changes can also affect a number of other, potentially more harmful, health conditions.  A  2017 article in the Huffington Post, reported on research studies from the NIH that found “autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular events, acute gout, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, hip fractures, mental health disorders, migraines, and emergency surgery and even mortality rates affected by the seasonal changes.

Fitzhugh Mullan, MD, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1985, described his discovery of a malignant mass in his chest and as an outcome of his personal experience, defined what he termed “the seasons of  cancer survivorship:”  acute (diagnosis and treatment); extended  (post-treatment); and permanent  (long-term survivorship).  Several years later, Kenneth Miller, MD expanded Mullan’s original seasons to four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship, building from observations not only of his patients’ experiences but also his wife’s.  In an article published by Cure Today magazine, he compared her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature, writing:

I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way.

Nature’s four seasons have always been a predominant theme in poetry, and  inspire the poetry of cancer.  Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she, too,  struggled with breast cancer.  Dan Matthews, poet, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in his collection,  Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (2007), while John Sokol invoked summer in his collection, In the Summer of Cancer (2001).  Barbara Crooker, in her poem, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” used springtime to signal her friend’s renewal and rejuvenation:

The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with

their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘

The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with

blossom, one loud yellow shout.

The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the

silver thread of their song.

The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken

gowns of midnight blue.

The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf

of violet chiffon.

And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions

and millions of small green hands applauding your return.

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)

We’re moving toward the “other side of spring” now.  Even my potted plants on the balcony are showing signs of submitting to a change of season, looking a little less vibrant by the week.  While I’m reluctant to bid summer good-bye, I’m eager to see the tree-lined streets alive with colors of gold, yellow, and scarlet and feel the crispness in the air as I walk. Each season has its unique qualities, and each stirs up memories of people, places and experiences in our lives. “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four…?”

Writing Suggestions

Explore how seasons influence your life or cancer journey. What seasonal metaphor best describes the stage of life or cancer survivorship you are experiencing?  Here are some suggestions help you get started writing:

  • Write about the different seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons important or significant to you in some way.
  • If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” has been the most difficult to endure?  Why?
  • Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience. You might begin by “exploding” as many images of that season on the page before you begin to shape a poem.  Be as descriptive as possible.

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The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. –Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)

It was the first time I’d met them:  first workshop on the first morning of a three day YACC retreat (Young Adults with Cancer, Canada). They dove into writing with candor and openness, a tall order for a group of young adults living with cancer at a weekend retreat.  Given our time constraints, there was little time to discuss writing’s healing benefits or provide a warm-up exercise.  We dove directly into writing about their cancer experience:  that first terrible moment of diagnosis, the life they’d had before cancer, the fears and also the sorrows before, taking a sharp turn in the final half hour of the second day.  “Tell me a funny story,” I said, asking them to describe a humorous moment during their cancer experience that made them laugh. I gave them only a short time to write, they all began writing, some quickly, others smiling or chuckling to themselves as their pens moved across the page.

Wait.  Was I nuts?  You might be asking, “What’s so funny about cancer?”  It turns out that there is a lot that happens during cancer that can make us laugh. I recall one woman at Stanford Cancer Center years ago who, when she lost her hair during chemotherapy, would arrive for her treatment with a variety of funny stickers applied to her bald head.  She wasn’t the only one smiling.  It is a known fact that laughter has beneficial effects on health and well-being.  Do you recall the remarkable story of writer and editor, Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness (1979)? Diagnosed in 1964 with ankylosing spondylitis, a rare disease of the connective tissues, his doctor told him he had a 1 in 500 chance of survival and should ”get his affairs in order.”

Cousins refused to accept a death sentence, fired his doctor and found another who agreed to partner with him in his treatment and recovery.  He began researching his disease, looking for a possible cure.  Laughter became a critical aspect of his treatment.  As part of an experimental treatment, he began a steady diet of watching old comic films like the Marx Brothers and the “Candid Camera” television shows.  The humor in them made him laugh, sometimes so hard his stomach hurt.  Cousins ultimately recovered and lived another twenty-six years.

A few years ago, I was experiencing swelling and pain in the left side of my forehead where my steel plate had been inserted during my teenage years after surgery for osteomyelitis of the skull and an abscess against the membrane of the brain.  The plate replaced the area where infected bone was removed and held in place with 23 screws into the surrounding bone.

My family doctor referred me to a specialist. After several tests and bone scans, I returned to hear the results and his diagnosis.  I tried masking my worry and nervousness with a smile and sat across from the physician.        “Sharon,” he began, “we can only discern that the problem is… (here he paused a bit before continuing) a loose screw.”

I felt my mouth twitching as I tried to suppress a nervous giggle.  “You’re joking, right?” I asked.

No, he said, he was not joking.  The only plausible explanation for what I was experiencing was that simple.  I returned home, worried that as I aged and lost bone density, there might be a bit of slippage of my left forehead down my face.  My brother was visiting that evening and as I walked into the house, he greeted me with a worried expression.

“So what did the doctor say?”

“He said it’s because of a loose screw in my forehead.”

My brother’s mouth twitched.  He thought I was joking.  “Well, we all know that, he said, laughing, “so now, what’s the real diagnosis?”

when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laugh­ing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive.

The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became. Jim Higley,  (“Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)

To think about humor and laughter in the midst of cancer treatment seems, at first, to be counterintuitive, almost an affront.  But it’s not.  In the writing groups I have led for cancer patients and survivors over the years, laughter is as much a part of the responses to shared stories as the tears, anger and frustration.  The YACC participants were no exception.  We broke into smaller groups to read and share their funny stories of the cancer experience, and within moments, laughter filled the room.  It turned out that there were a lot of humorous moments in cancer.  One of the participants had even turned her colo-rectal cancer diagnosis and treatment into a stand-up comedy act, something several former cancer patients have done.

Six years ago, I was a speaker at an Omega Institute program titled “Living Well with Cancer.” Acknowledging that for some, cancer had become a chronic disease, “the program focused on optimizing resiliency at every life stage,” and included presentations and workshops on meditation, expressive writing, yoga, mindfulness walking and a keynote address by Dr. Jeremy Geffen, MD, author of The Seven Levels of Healing.  On the final evening, however, the program took a decidedly lighter tone as former CURE Magazine editor Kathy LaTour and comedian Skip Backus entertained us with comedy acts of their cancer experiences, resulting in loud and infectious laughter from everyone in the room.  Laughing, it turned out, was just as much about resiliency as all the other topics discussed during the weekend.

What does laughter do for us, whether combating a disease or simply navigating through our busy, stressful lives?  It breaks the ice; relaxes people and builds community.  Even in the midst of something as soul shattering as a cancer diagnosis, we still find things that make us smile.  When you laugh, your outlook is brightened, and that has positive effects on your health.  Research has shown that laughter relieves stress and pain, boosts the immune system and reduces blood pressure.  No wonder laughter is good medicine.  Besides, ten to fifteen minutes of laughing burns about 50 calories!

The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter.  The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.–Mark Twain

 Oh, about that loose screw diagnosis I received…  It turns out that simply taking amoxicillin before dental treatment resolved the issue.  My forehead hasn’t slipped a bit.

Let’s face it:  smiling and laughter are contagious.  Whether during cancer treatment or simply living in a world be constantly dominated by crises, hardship and struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about together.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Take a break from writing about the cancer experience, the more serious topics of life. Instead, dig back into your memories.
  • Write about a time, describing in as much detail as you can,a time something made you laugh, perhaps hard enough to make tears run down your cheeks, a humorous event that makes you smile, even as you begin to recall the memory of it.
  • Read it and perhaps share your story with a friend or family member. Let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day.

 

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A few years ago, I received a note from Sister Anne Higgins, author of the blog, “Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky” a blend of narrative, photographs and poetry. 2011, when   Her blog posts continue, more oriented today to current issues, but in 2011, when she first wrote me,  she was going through cancer treatment, and a line from one of her poems, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” still lingers in my mind:   “Here is the club you never want to join…”

Sister Anne’s words reminded me of a phone call I once received from a cancer survivor several years ago soon after she learned I had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.”  I appreciated her call, but even during my university years, I was never one to join clubs or sororities, and I rang off certain I didn’t want to belong to any “private” cancer sorority or club.  However, I was in denial, a state of numbness and disbelief that would last more than a few days.

I didn’t have a choice, as it turned out; life had forced me into the cancer club.  Many weeks later, during the seven weeks of radiation treatments, I acknowledged my membership when, responding to a writing prompt–one single sentence, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I wrote: “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me:  men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy.  Some with hair; others without.  We are all members of a private club.  We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”

Cancer isn’t the only circumstance or time in your lifes that you may be labeled by hardship, trauma or illness.  In those moments, it’s as if life is dealing from a deck of cards  in game we never even wanted to join, as one former kidney cancer patient described:

Hit me.

Two cards down.  Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing this game, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.

These are the life cards no one wants to be dealt, the memberships and labels you didn’t choose:  cancer survivor, heart patient, war veteran, single parent, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disability, on and on.  The list is endless, and sometimes, without warning, you suddenly find a new label is thrust upon you. You feel vulnerable, exposed, and even violated, as Molly Redmond describes in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back,”

It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.

People invade—an assault of connections—

for reasons fair and foul.

Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.

The medical cadre too.

Either way,

I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…

(From:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)

You protest, even try to deny this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:

I don’t, don’t want the part.

I really don’t what this part.

I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.

It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,

No Violetta, no burst of aria…

I told you—didn’t I tell you?—

I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want

this part…

(The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1)

Well, you’ve gotten the part; you’ve drawn the card; you’ve been given the label.  You find you’re in the club you never asked to join.  Now what?

That new label is where you begin. “Cancer patient,” “living with cancer:” these are new identities that introduce new memberships but also strong emotions.  For example, those who attend my expressive writing groups quietly identify themselves as “living with cancer,” and they often express feelings of loneliness and fear as our meetings begin.  As the weeks progress, however, I witness a growing sense of community, support for one another and special understanding that comes from experiences openly shared in their writing.

It is not just face-to-face groups where this happens.  With the growth of online support communities, many newly diagnosed cancer patients turn to the Internet for information and for the social connections formed online.  Social media and online support group opportunities can also be beneficial for those diagnosed and living with cancer.  For example, a randomized controlled trial involving breast cancer patients suggested that “a Web-based support group” could “be useful” in reducing depression, cancer-related trauma and perceived stress.”

While being diagnosed with cancer may introduce you to a private “club” you may be reluctant to join, you may well discover the support of others, similarly diagnosed, helps to diminish your diminish feelings of loneliness, fear and isolation:  that’s a powerful form of medicine that can help you heal.

Writing Suggestions:

This week, think about a time that life circumstances forced you into a category, stuck you with a new identity, or “forced” that unwanted membership upon you.

  • Describe how it felt.  How did you deal with it?
  • Did you find your self-concept challenged?
  • Did it spur you into action or change the way you thought about your illness or situation?
  • Did you join a support group?  Writing group?  Online support group?
  • Did you find a sense of community, of others who understood what you were going through?
  • Write about the experience finding yourself in that club you never asked to join, what you did, and the impact it had on you.

 

 

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Every morning, when we wake up, we have 24 brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, & happiness to ourselves & others. — –Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher

For a few moments the other day, I was asked by a new acquaintance the question I’ rarely hear anymore:  “What do you do?”   I had a flashback to an earlier time in my life when at every gathering, whether social or business, the most often question asked after an introduction was:  “What do you do?”  Somehow, that question always reminded me of the Cheshire Cat in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, asking Alice, “Who… are…you?”

It used to be that my answer most often included a job title and brief description that placed me in the world of business and career, and gave me “credibility” in the larger world–no doubt because  as a young mother and faculty wife of a college professor living in a small university town, wives were predominately relegated to domestic or volunteer roles.  I was rarely asked if I did anything outside of my domestic life.  Nevertheless, my standard answer to “Who are you?” was an identity badge that actually said very little about me, my life or what I held to be important and meaningful.  Nor did my response indicate the many roles I had, the different worlds I moved in and out of on a daily basis.

It’s not dissimilar to the way in which people introduce themselves to one another at the initial session of one of my cancer-writing groups.  For a time, one’s identity seems to be defined by cancer.  Introductions such as  “I’m living with lung cancer, ” or “I’m a cancer survivor” are most often the first thing anyone says about themselves, followed later by one’s professional or work status, and then, perhaps, one’s more personal details.

It’s not that we’re uninterested in each other’s lives but when we’re diagnosed and living with a serious illness, that reality defines a significant part of our identity, and it may take time for the other pieces of our lives to emerge and blend into a fuller picture of who we truly are. and the many different roles we occupy.

We all have the unique capacity to inhabit several different “worlds” at any given time. Each of us lives our lives on many different planes, something Patrice Vecchione describes in her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001).  Even if we’re not  aware of it, our inner and outer lives are always interacting; affecting and informing each other as we move between those different worlds each day.  Yet in the demanding chapter of life called cancer treatment and recovery, that world of “patient” or “living with cancer” dominates our daily existence, and we may be only vaguely aware that the needs of our inner lives are all be being ignored.   Sooner or later, it catches up with us.

I once moved between my different worlds as if they were separate, without much awareness to how those different aspects of my life interacted.  My husband and daughters would tell you that those years were ones in which I was frequently stressed, irritable and tired.  I was running from one thing to another, and without much satisfaction from any of it.  It was as if I was on a virtual elevator, constantly in motion, racing between floors.  Push a button, the elevator moved up or down, and stopped to open, “Second floor, family life. Third floor, workplace. Fourth floor, Business lunches and dinners.  Fifth floor:  Volunteer committee meetings.” I  shudder to remember the constant rush of the pace I kept, moving up and down several floors each day—“Ding, office.”  “Ding, meetings.”  Ding, clients.”  “Ding, Board volunteer.”  “Ding.  Family.”  “Ding”….  I was hardly aware that my spiritual life had been relegated to the basement.  My outer life had little unity with my inner one.

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day,” poet Joy Harjo wrote in her autobiographical essay, “Ordinary Spirit” (in:  I Tell You Now, 2005).  Harjo was referring to her mixed race, in part, and the struggle to “unify” her different worlds.  The struggle I had in unifying my different worlds and tending to my inner life was something I hadn’t paid attention to except fleetingly.  Then one sunny afternoon, between business meetings, I met with my doctor to follow up on my mammogram results.  That’s when I heard him say “cancer,” but I kept my composure, even, as I left his office, shaking his hand to thank him for the meeting.

He frowned.  “Sharon, are you all right?”

Oh yes, I assured him, I was fine., and I promptly returned to my car to head back to my office, a twenty-minute drive down the freeway.   I drove a few miles before I began trembling.  I pulled off the freeway.  “Cancer?  Did he really say, “Cancer?”

He had, but I was lucky; it was very early stage and immensely treatable, nevertheless it was a much-needed whack on the side of my head.   I left my job a month later, and for a time, re-focused my attention of self-care and healing.  It was difficult time.  I felt vulnerable, without a title to define me, and yet, I knew I didn’t want to return to that old way of life.

Our own life has to be our message.  –Thich Nhat Hahn

I barely recall that overworked self of more than two decades ago for whom stress was a steady diet, and who was caught up in the upward climb of a fast moving career.    I kept shoving my unhappiness aside until one day, as I walked to my spacious office overlooking Park Avenue in New York City, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window:  grim-faced, briefcase held tight against my body, shoulders hunched forward, and stress oozing from every pore of the reflection that looked back at me.  “Who had I become?”  The many worlds I inhabited every day were as unbalanced and separate from one another as they could possibly be.

But I’d been on the high achiever track for two decades.  It was addictive, because there’s a mind numbing routine to busyness–the daily demands, appointments, proposals, and meetings–that creates a false sense of security.  Where I once falsely believed I had some control over the course of my life, after hearing the word “cancer,” I realized I was an unwilling passenger on a wayward elevator, moving randomly between floors without any sense of predictability.

It took time, risk, and even another health crisis before I felt I had been successful in re-claiming a more satisfying and meaningful life.  I began re-reading many of Ticht Nhat Hanh’s words to help me remember I needed to integrate  my inner and outer lives, blend my separate worlds into a whole as best as I could.  I also recalled Joy Harjo’s statement that “it is only an illusion that any of the worlds we inhabit are separate.”  This “new” world, the one where I had suddenly become so much more aware of how abruptly one’s life can end, indeed, how capricious life can be, affected all other “worlds” of my life in deep and significant ways.  I sought to pay attention to the way I was living each day.

The redefinition of a life is something I witness repeatedly among the men and women in my expressive writing groups.  Cancer–or any other life threatening or serious illness–can ignite a crisis in anyone’s life.  It is not just the body, but all the different parts of your life that are affected.  All that you are—who you have thought yourself to be—in mind, body, and spirit–are thrust into upheaval.  You can no longer afford to  inhabit the different worlds in one’s life with the same assumptions you once did.

When that crazy elevator ride you’ve been on  finally ceases its wayward ride, you are often confronted with a new and sometimes confusing landscape to make sense of and occupy comfortably.  As I discovered myself, it takes time and persistence to make sense of it and find a path to wholeness and healing.

The routes to healing, to wholeness, are different for each of us:  faith, meditation, yoga, writing, music, art—what form it takes hardly matters.  It is the search, seeking of internal peace, and acceptance of a new and altered life that matters.

Change is not always easy.  Trying to live intentionally is a conscious decision I revisit every single day.  I still fumble sometimes, but not for long, remembering how cancer and heart failure brought me up short like a horse’s snaffle bit.  I stepped away from the stressful life I was living and chose a different path.  Nevertheless, it was only a beginning.  Even now, I consciously begin each day by reminding myself of  my intentions to create and live in a way that is more harmonious, intentional and present, repeating the words of Ticht Nhat Hahn:

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Writing Suggestions:

  • Give some thought to the worlds you inhabit on a daily basis.  How many different roles do you play in your life?  How do they influence each other?
  • Were your “worlds” affected by cancer, loss or another unexpected hardship?  Describe them.
  • Write about how you’ve moved in and out of different worlds or the many roles you have played before and after your life was altered in unexpected ways. What has changed?

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