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Archive for the ‘life writing’ Category

For the first year after we returned to Toronto, I was lucky enough to have a room of my own for writing.  Our first apartment, a rambling, spacious three bedroom in a turn of the century building, allowed me to have the space I was accustomed to for my writing practice.  The only downside was that it was a third floor walk-up, and after several months, I developed Achilles tendonitis and a persistent pain in my right knee.  We acknowledged that our days of climbing three flights of stairs several times a day could not continue.  We moved once again last year, but the new apartment, although more expensive, offers an elevator and is located within easy walking distance to trails, shops and the subway.  However, it has only two bedrooms unlike the three in the old apartment.  Ever optimistic, I thought we would have enough space for our work habits and ourselves.  Once moved in, however, the realities of a smaller living space quickly became apparent.  My husband and I had to figure out how to share the smaller bedroom for our workspaces.

Despite Virginia’s Woolf’s famous statement, that A woman must have money and a room of her own,” it is neither a requirement nor may it be feasible, nor is it required.  Hemingway wrote standing up; Ben Franklin apparently preferred the bathtub for writing, while Patti Smith wrote in a favorite coffee shop at a particular table.  As a mother, Toni Morrison wrote in a little motel room when her children were small, yet Jane Austen wrote her novels amid her family life. (Poets & Writers, 2008)  I was lucky, I suppose.  My writing habit was honed in a room to myself with a window that looked out to treetops and a canyon–a far cry for what I encountered when we moved to our current Toronto apartment.

My writing practice took a nosedive.  I sought refuge in the front room, but my once quiet and solitary morning routine was constantly interrupted by my husband, passing through the room to the kitchen for coffee and breakfast.  “How’s the writing going?”  He’d ask as he passed my chair.  His question and the interruption only served to highlight how poorly my writing time was progressing.  Frustration became a frequent theme of what was written in my notebook.  I felt unsettled and irritable.  Little wonder, I suppose, since I’d written in a “room of my own” for the better part of thirty years.  How could I offer writing advice to the men and women participating in my groups if, in truth, I wasn’t writing as I had always done for so many years?

My husband came up with the solution, no doubt weary of my irritability and complaints about my writing–or lack of it.  For the third or fourth time in a year, we rearranged the shared office space, and again, thanks to IKEA, created a little nook in the corner where there is a narrow floor to ceiling window.  I found a comfortable chair that fits in the small space and happily resumed the early morning writing routine I’ve enjoyed for much of my life.  Now I look through the window at the treetops and Toronto’s cityscape in the distance.

A little over a week ago, I led several sessions on journaling as part of the Camp Ooch/POGO (Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario) “Life after Cancer” conference.  While the writing I do with cancer patients and survivors has been in a group format, journaling had been a lifesaving practice for me after my first husband’s sudden death.  I am well aware that writing alone also has similar health benefits as writing together, improving mood and quality of sleep, reducing fatigue and helping gain insight into personal struggles and emotions.  During the workshops,  we discussed the healing benefits of writing and the many different forms journaling can take, for example,  the gratitude journal, an art journal, a writing journal (where you’re creating something like poetry or memoir), or dream journal, among others.    While there is no one way to journal, however, you need a quiet place that is comfortable and private in order to write honestly and without interruption.  I now knew too well how difficult it was to try to write without that sense of privacy.

Writing can be done anywhere, it’s true, but it needs to be done in a space that is free of interruptions and distractions.  You can create that “sense” of a room of one’s own, as many writers have demonstrated in all kinds of spaces, a space you shape for yourself: one a bedroom corner, a nook in a shared office, a library, even a table at a coffee shop.   Bonni Goldberg , author of Room to Write, a favorite little book of writing invitations, explains her book title as not necessarily about  “a” room to write in, but rather,  “creating room for your writing,” meaning you make  time and space in your life to have room to write.   “Making room in your life to write,” Goldberg adds, “generates even more room for your writing.” How you make that room is as unique to you as your writing is.

Writing can be an attempt to make a room where you can fully live, even if that room is imaginary, invisible to anyone who doesn’t bother to read your work.–Sandra Newman, author

You have to create and protect the space you need to write, whether your writing is a kind of meditation, a prayer, for healing or to nurture your creativity.   Without a place free of interruptions and distractions, your ability to write freely and honestly–so important to all kinds of writing–is compromised.  In reclaiming a “space of my own,” and my morning writing  routine, I rediscovered the mental and emotional space needed to nurture my creative life.  It is good to have a place, a nook, however imperfect or small, because it helps me ensure there is room in my daily life to write.

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

Writing Suggestions:

  • This week, think about how and why you write.
  • Do you make room to write regularly?  Do you have a favorite spot or a place of your own in which to write?
  • What role does writing play in your life?
  • How have you created a  “room of your own” that lets you bask in quiet and solitude, even briefly.
  • Write…about writing.

 

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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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She is alive.  Although her doctors said

there was nothing to be done, she is home,

planting her summer garden, is not dead,

and plans to eat everything she has grown…

She will live

beyond the harvest and what will not grow

is her tumor…

this is her time

to cultivate and seed.  She is alive.

(From:  “Seed,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

You’ve finished your treatment.  The doctor’s words are something like “cancer free” or “no evidence of disease.”  You’ve beaten the odds.  You’re a survivor.  You celebrate.  But little by little, you find you’re riding on an emotional roller coaster some days, and you can’t seem to get yourself going and doing all you promised you’d do if you survived cancer.  “Why,” you ask a friend or a partner, “do I feel so bad?”

The good news about cancer, according to a 2011 article by Ann McDonald appearing in Harvard Health, is that “nearly 12 million Americans—4% of the population—are still alive after a cancer diagnosis.  While that’s encouraging news and “a testament to improved diagnosis and treatment…survivorship comes at a psychological price.”

McDonald describes three major and common reactions to survivorship:  1)  becoming emotionally paralyzed by the specter of cancer and unable to re-engage with normal life activities, 2) fears of recurrence, when follow-up medical visits and tests or unexplained pain or other symptoms produce worry and anxiety, and 3) feeling guilty when other friends or acquaintances have not survived.  It’s no wonder really.  As Alice Hoffman, novelist and cancer survivor, described it,

These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later.– NYT Times, August 2000.

Yet, what other choice to do you have but to learn how to survive the crises life sometimes presents to you, whether cancer or some other hardship?   When you are undergoing treatment, surgeries and chemotherapy, the prospect of survival dominates your life.  You want to be a survivor, one, as the Oxford American Dictionary defines as “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died,” such as those 9/11 survivors or those who survived the sinking of the Titanic.  It is also a term the Oxford defines as “a person who copes well with difficulties in… life,” something that seems virtually synonymous with being human.

What ignites your will to survive and helps you cope and keep going?  It’s different for all of us and yet, so much the same.  Hope is surely one of those things that keeps us going.  The support and love of friends and loved ones are also important to our will to survive–even, at times, those who have yet to be born.

A., a beloved writing group member who died from metastatic breast cancer, demonstrated extraordinary determination to live fully for as long as she could, filling her days with family, friends, travel, and joy. Her oldest daughter was pregnant, and she was determined to survive to be present for her first grandchild’s birth, even though the odds were very much against her.  She died a month after he was born, but she lived to be present at his birth and hold him in her arms for the short time she had left.  I have no doubt that his impending arrival strengthened her will to live and experience the joy of his arrival.

J., another of my former writers, given a terminal diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, evidenced a strong will to survive from the moment I met him.  Not surprisingly, he underwent a bone marrow transplant and intent on living as long as he possibly could, lived for another  five years before dying.  He engaged fully with living during that time, and he wrote poignantly, humorously, and honestly about his cancer struggle in the group and later, on his personal blog. Shortly before he died, he sent me a copy of an essay, entitled “What I’ve Learned,” summarizing the lessons of  his cancer experience.  Among the many bits of wisdom he expressed, he reminded us all that survival, no matter how brief or lengthy, is about living fully, for as long as we have.  Among  J.’s survival tips were:

  • Work at what you love…
  • Travel light.
  • Do what the doctors tell you.
  • Offer support when you can and it will come back to you when you need it.·
  • Cherish the ones you cherish.
  • In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror
  • We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

He gave us good advice, because in life, we are all survivors of something.  Life is sometimes challenging, and you may face tough chapters to navigate through. Surviving–and surviving well– is something we all have to learn–and relearn–multiple times in our lives.  As your life continues to change, another challenge or difficulty can make you feel uncertain, clumsy or tentative.  But surviving isn’t about giving up.  It requires you learn new ways of being–and that is not always easy or pleasant.

Whether cancer, the effects of aging, unexpected life transitions, from time to time you have to remind yourselves that you’ve  proven, again and again, that you can adjust and move on.  As your life continues to change–in subtle and not so subtle ways–you learn the new movements, necessary strategies and behaviors.  Even better, you may learn how to move beyond “just” surviving and rather, fully embracing the life before you–changed and different perhaps, but yours.  After all, it is the only life you have, and you need to care for it.

…and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,

determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save. 

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

Writing Suggestions:

  • How do you think of or define “survival?”
  • As a cancer survivor, what advice would you offer others newly diagnosed?
  • Describe a different time, cancer excluded, when life knocked you down.  What got you back on your feet?  What helped you survive?
  • After you were designated “cancer-free,” did you experience any difficulty in learning to live fully again?  What helped you re-engage?

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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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In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Two weeks ago, I was preparing to head to the hospital for the second time in a matter of days. …   It had been a frustrating week before, what began with happiness–my birthday, a family celebration, calls and cards from friends scattered across North America–had plummeted into frustration in a matter of hours.  Sometime after I’d gone to bed after my birthday dinner, I awakened thirsty and made my way to the kitchen for a glass of water.  I stepped onto a damp floor near the kitchen…and moments later, realized our ceiling was leaking water from several large cracks.  It was the result of an elderly neighbor, one floor above, leaving her faucet running with the sink stopper in.  The next hour and a half were spent trying to forestall any major damage to artwork, rugs and furniture.  Worse, I awakened the next morning utterly exhausted.  My surgical procedure–replacing my ICD (implanted cardiac device)–was scheduled for the next morning, and I was tired and stressed already.

It didn’t end there.  My husband and I checked in to the hospital early in the morning as instructed.  Seven hours later, we returned home, my surgery cancelled and rescheduled due to unexpected complications and, thus, a backup in the admissions department.  I was slated to have the procedure done the following Tuesday.  Not surprisingly, I was worried I might be sitting in the waiting room for another marathon of several hours.  Gratitude was far from my thoughts.  I was anxious and tense.

Tuesday arrived, and thanks to the scheduler, who knew of my plight a few days earlier, I was first in line for the cardiac operating room.  The procedure completed, I spent the day in the hospital to ensure everything was working, then returned home, the tension of the preceding days dissipating, and instead, feeling grateful:  first, for the surgical procedure completed successfully, but also, for the kindness of the staff, a well-rested surgeon, and a new ICD.  Awakening the following morning with a spirit of gratitude was far preferable to the irritation, anxiety and stress I’d felt just days before.

An attitude of gratitude is good for us.  Science confirms that it’s beneficial for us in a number of ways, among them:

.  It can make you more patient.

.  It might improve your relationships.

.  It improves self-care.

.  It can help you sleep.

.  It may stop you from overeating.

.  It can help ease depression.

.  It gives you happiness that lasts.

This past week was the final session of my current “Writing through Cancer” workshops at Gilda’s Club, and not surprisingly, gratitude was something mentioned by most of the participants:  gratitude for things like the lessons of cancer, for family and friends, for doctors and nurses, for the things in life that truly matter most.

Dana Jennings, a New York Times editor, who published regular blog posts throughout his diagnosis, surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, reflected on life after cancer, saying, Living in the shadow of cancer has granted me a kind of high-definition gratitude. I’ve found that when you’re grateful, the world turns from funereal gray to incandescent Technicolor…The small moments of gratitude are the most poignant to me because they indicate that I’m still paying close attention to the life I’m living, that I haven’t yet succumbed to numbing obliviousness.

When you have cancer, when you’re being cut open and radiated and who knows what else, it can take a great effort to be thankful for the gift of the one life that we have been blessed with. Believe me, I know…

I try, daily, to end my morning writing practice with a gratitude list.  I do it because it helps me remember the small gifts, as well as the larger ones, that I have experienced in my lifetime.  I think of the neurosurgeon who saved my life as a teenager, and I think of my cardiologist whom I see now–someone of extraordinary skill and healing;  I remember my father’s stories and sense of humor, grateful some of that was passed to me.  I am grateful for a handful of enduring friendships–people who’ve weathered the good and the challenging times with me; I mumble quiet thanks for sunlit days, grandchildren, having one daughter nearby…and each day, there is no shortage of things to add to my gratitude list.

I feel better as I close my notebook.  In fact, as Robert Emmons, psychologist at the University of California, Davis, states, “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life.”

A gratitude practice enhances my daily life, but among its other benefits are lower blood pressure, improved immune function and even better sleep.  A study conducted at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine found that grateful people actually had better heart health–less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms, something I’ve paid attention to, and   other university research studies have also shown that gratitude has beneficial effects on  immune systems, reduction of stress hormones and may even reduce the effects of aging to the brain.  “Gratitude works,” says Dr. Emmons, “because…it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits.”

In recent years, researchers have examined the role of gratitude plays in well-being, whether the impact is psychological, like increasing positive emotion, or physical, such as improving sleep.  Gratitude research has also extended to cancer patients.  Reported by Anne Moyer, PhD, in a 2016 Psychology Today article, one study was conducted among patients with cervical cancer that indicated fostering a mind-set of gratitude increased levels of positive emotion and reduced negative ones.  As a consequence, patients showed increased flexibility in thinking and, thus, improvement in their ability to cope with stress.

A second study with breast cancer patients utilized a gratitude intervention to address patients’ fear of recurrence and worry about death.  They were invited to spend 10 minutes weekly over a six-week period writing a letter to express their gratitude to someone who’d done something kind for them.  Those who practiced expressing gratitude to another experienced a decline in their worry about death.

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.― Meister Eckhart

Our ceiling has now been repaired; the discomfort experienced after my ICD was re-positioned under the muscle has all but disappeared.  This morning, as I sat on our balcony, warmed by the summer sunlight, I was reminded that even the mundane and ordinary can inspire gratitude.  All we have to do is notice.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…

(From:  “i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings, In:  Complete Poems, 1904-1962)

What can you do to incorporate more gratitude into your life each day?   In a 2016 article appearing online in Forbes WomensMedia, Janet Miller, offers eight practical tips:

  1. Don’t be picky. Appreciate everything.  Gratitude doesn’t have to be about the big things.
  2. Find gratitude in your challenges. Difficult or negative experiences can teach us what we’re really thankful for.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Daily, think of five to ten things you are grateful for.  Doing this daily will actually “rewire” your brain to be more grateful, and you’ll feel happier.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. Several researchers suggest writing the things you are grateful for on a daily basis, at bedtime.
  5. Volunteer. Give back to others in your community.  It increases your own well-being.
  6. Express yourself. Do more than just keep a journal.  Let people you care about know you are grateful for them.
  7. Spend time with loved ones, friends as well as family.
  8. Improve your happiness in other areas of your life

Writing Suggestions:

  • Try developing a habit of practicing gratitude.  Use a journal to document, daily, your gratitude.  It doesn’t have to be a long list or very detailed.  Simply list 3 – 5 things you are grateful for.  Do this for a week, faithfully. Then take stock:  Do you notice any changes in yourself?  Continue the practice for another week or two, and then reflect on it in more depth.  What changed?  Did it help you be more aware of the life around you?  Did you feel more positive? Calmer? Happier?
  • Practice noticing and appreciating the ordinary e.e. cummings described in his poem.  Explore your gratitude for the simple joys of living.   Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy.  Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.

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