For the Week of July 10, 2016: Making the Journey

This past week has been all about my granddaughter, Flora, who celebrated her fifth birthday.  I was lucky enough to participate in her festivities, squeezing my tall body into a cramped and uncomfortable airplane seat to make the five hour trip to Toronto, then sleep on a futon bed that guaranteed I awakened with an aching back each morning.  But I admit that when I sat among Flora’s delighted friends, their parents, and the party activities my daughter and son-in-law had so painstakingly planned, the unpleasantness of air travel and lumpy mattresses hardly seemed important.

I admit that most travel is anything but enjoyable  for me at this stage of my life, but  my daughters and their families live thousands of miles apart from each other and from me,  so I willingly endure the stress and discomfort of these long distance journeys to immerse myself in my grandchildren’s lives for a short time once or twice a year.  Their joyful welcomes, imaginative play, and delight in whatever antics we share together are well worth the trips.

Airplane travels aside, each of us encounter many different kinds of journeys during our lives.  I think back to some of mine, and how much I wish I’d had a few road maps for events like single parenting, widowhood, illness or even this  journey called “retirement.”  It helps, of course, to have information and advice, but ultimately, each person’s experience is unique.

Like any traveler, I do my homework before I set out on any new journey, be it travel to a foreign country, illness and treatment, or, more recently, the less welcome aspects of aging.  Like anything, google “cancer,” “arthritis,” “retirement” or “cancer,” and you’ll find dozens of sites with advice and tips for the person who must traverse the terrain of any debilitating illness or life stage changes, or various medications and their side effects, to name a few.  While  I appreciate information,  I’ve often discovered that the amount available and sometimes contradictory articles I read can be overwhelming.  More reassuring is the support—and advice—of friends and colleagues who’ve experienced these different life journeys. I have cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me in life.  They have been invaluable resources to help me prepare and travel through any unknown territory.

In a few weeks, I’ll  begin two new “Writing Through Cancer” programs , and “journey,” a  metaphor for the cancer experience, will be key to informing the design of the sessions and prompts I offer to the men and women who attend.

In a discussion of the use of metaphors in cancer, authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson describe the “journey” as encompassing the possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)

Perhaps the most important aspect of the cancer writing groups I lead is the support that the participants give to one another.  They are travelers on a similar journey that none of them would ever choose to take.  Some participants are newly diagnosed, others are well into treatment, and a few are in recovery or living with the likelihood of death from their illness.  No matter the stage of each person’s cancer journey, they join together as a supportive community, sharing their experiences, offering understanding and assistance to one another at every turn.  By the end of the series, new insights and discoveries, the deeper realms of the heart and one’s life are shared.  To witness these journeys, hear the stories and the poetry that comes from the experience of cancer, is surely one of the greatest gifts I experience.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

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, Dream Work, 1986)


Writing Suggestions:

Life.  Journey.  Two intertwined words..  How would you describe your cancer journey?  Or one triggered by a difficult and life-changing event you’ve experienced?   Here are some questions to consider as you write:

  • What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or elderhood?  Job loss?  Retirement?   Loss of a loved one?
  • How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks to the “new normal” of life and rediscover how to live fully?
  • What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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