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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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It all leads to a story… The more powerful the story behind the food, the more it evokes the memory, which in turn enhances the flavour. (From: “Food with a Story to Tell,” The Guardian, Sept. 2013)

 

Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?

You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.
(From:  “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).

Yesterday was Canadian Thanksgiving, and for several days in advance, food and recipes were on my mind…  Despite abandoning our dining table, one with extra leaves, and the roomy kitchen of our former home for a city apartment and small dining room table, I invited both sides of our extended Toronto family to share our holiday dinner.  I would come to question my sanity multiple times between issuing the invitation and preparing the meal, but late yesterday afternoon, seven of us sat around a configuration of our small dining table and another folding table to share the Thanksgiving meal.

At any holiday meal shared with family, there are new recipes to try and some old favorites from many years.  While I like to try out new dishes often, there were two perennial favorites on the menu.  One had to be on the table, a  family favorite, a casserole, named “Broccoli Soufflé” and given to me by my mother-in-law when I was a young bride.  The other, a yam casserole with marshmallow topping–a dish my grandmother and aunts served every Thanksgiving, was requested by my 8 year old granddaughter.  She eagerly helped prepare it, meticulously placing the miniature marshmallows one by one on top of the yams.  Neither my husband nor I eat broccoli soufflé or yam casserole at any other time–our dietary habits changed long ago.  Yet not surprisingly, the old recipes are laden with history and memories of people and Thanksgivings of the past.  And yesterday, just as happens at every family holiday dinner, the stories ignited by those traditional dishes were shared once again.  It’s no surprise that food stimulates everyone’s memories and stories.

Food plays a part of our history, as individuals and as a people. Food we consider “traditional,” no matter our heritage, triggers memory; stories are rediscovered and retold,  memories of long ago relatives, traditions that were so much a part of who we once were as children, the lives we took, in our youth, for granted.  During my childhood, every holiday included large family gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins of all ages.  Fast forward to my adulthood when, intent on adventure and fulfilling dreams, my husband and I first moved to Canada, separated by well over 2500 miles from my huge extended family. I woke up filled with  nostalgia and longing on more than one Thanksgiving.  Making some of the dishes I knew so well helped ease the sense of loneliness, and gradually, as my husband and I had two daughters, we began to create our own family holiday traditions, but ones that also incorporated food of our childhoods.

“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.” This statement appeared in the introduction to a writing prompt featured a few years ago in The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine.

Think about it.  Food enlivens many of our senses, so it’s little wonder that a well-loved meal can stimulates so many memories.   Sometimes, even food we love can become unpleasant to us because of the associations we have with it. In fifth grade, I abruptly turned against my favorite “Thousand Island” salad dressing after a severe concussion from a bicycle accident a short time after I’d eaten a salad doused with it.  I never ate it again, the memory of the nausea in the aftermath of the concussion too vivid.

Try as I might–and I have many times–I’ve never managed to duplicate the same delicious oatmeal raisin cookies my grandmother made and I happily ate.  She lived across the street from my kindergarten classroom, and daily, I went to her house to wait for my father to pick me up after work.  Those afternoons, of all my food-related memories, just might be my favorite.  Every afternoon, a glass of milk and an oatmeal raisin cookie waited for me at her kitchen table.  We sat across from each other. She, sipping a cup of creamy coffee and telling me stories of my father.  Her kitchen was always filled with the aromas of cake, pie or cookies, ready for my father, uncles and aunts who loved her baking as much as I did and often dropped by for a visit over something delicious.   But the after school time was reserved for the two of us, sharing stories, an oatmeal cookie and time together.   While she told stories about her life and my father’s, often exaggerated and always colorful, I listened with rapt attention.  Not only was I was learning about my family’s history, I was developing a lifelong love of story.  It was time I cherish even now, with grandchildren of my own.

In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…

She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetable in pots.
Lights click. Smells blossom.

Everything feels suddenly invited.

(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)

Writing Suggestions:


This week, think about food and the recipes that have been a part of your family’s traditions.

  • Begin writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from your childhood or another time in life, and any memories emerge, explore them.
  • Write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, of the smells or objects in a grandmother’s or mother’s kitchen.
  • Perhaps you traveled to a country or place where the food was new to you. Write about the experience.
  • Have you had an experience that turned food you loved into food you cannot stand?  What happened?  Write it.

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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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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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