For the Week of October 2, 2016: The Lost & Found of the Cancer Experience

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”  It’s one of poems I began with this past week at the weekly session of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center group.  The week before, the topic of friends—having them, and losing them during cancer—had arisen in our discussion, and I decided to explore it further as our first writing prompt.  Shihab-Nye’s poem was a perfect beginning:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

–from “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994

Loss.  It’s often synonymous with cancer.  Loss of hair, parts of the body; loss of self-image, of dreams, even loss of some you considered friends.   What struck me, as different members read what they’d written, was how common the loss of friendships was among the group.  Loneliness emerged as a common theme, the isolation one can feel during the cancer experience.  The emotions in the room were palpable.

It’s true that life as you once knew it,  is never the same and a cancer diagnosis.  The landscape between those “regions of kindness,” can seem unending and desolate.  Not only are your bodies forever altered, the self you took for granted feels like a distant memory.   Worse, some friends or even family members you thought would understand and lend support, may distance themselves, and that hurts.  Cancer may ignite fear and a sense of helplessness among some friends, as Gretchen Fletcher’s poem, “To a friend now separated from me by illness” expresses so poignantly:

Our lives until so recently

parallel and filled

with common details…

details still in my life

while you lie in an alien bed,

your life now filled with details


I don’t know, tubes and shunts

and treatments tried and failed.

I want to speak; you want to speak,

but we’ve lost our common language…

I don’t know. How can I know

how it feels to lose a breast

and fight to save lungs,

bone, and brain

when all I have to battle

is the traffic? 

(In:  The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001)

It’s easy to forget, when you are in the midst of appointments, surgeries, and treatments, that your friends may feel helpless, not knowing what or how to “be” in the friendship as you were before.  Cancer changes your bodies, and it changes you:  how you navigate your life, what truly matters to you.  Some friends may fall away, yes, but others won’t, and new friendships are often discovered.  You take solace I the small moments of kindness and of new friendships, and as you do, you find your way back into life.

As Shihab-Nye says,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

During times of loss and grief, when you least expect it, you discover kindness and caring.  One of my favorite poems in Karin Miller’s wonderful two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project is “Finding God at the Montefiore Hospital,” by Lorraine Ryan, a touching portrayal of unexpected kindness and friendship:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…


With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”


Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

(In:  Volume 1, 2001)

It’s not just loss that defines the cancer experience.  There are things you find too:  new friends, new dreams, and new gratitude for life’s small gifts, ones you may have previously overlooked or barely noticed.  You discover new facets of yourselves to explore, strength or resilience you never imagined you had.  Perhaps you even discover you haven’t lost as much as you thought.  The kind of loss that comes from cancer or other serious illness is often fertile ground for new knowledge and understanding.

Writing helps us articulate– even mourn–what we have lost in the difficult chapters of life,  but it offers us much more.  When we write, we have a blank page, an unblemished open space upon which to reclaim lost stories, create new ones, reclaim our voices and ourselves.  We discover new insights, new possibilities.  We discover our words have the power to touch others.  We find new realms of creativity we never realized we possessed.  We find ourselves again.

Writing Suggestion:

  • Start with a blank sheet of paper and list everything you’ve lost since your cancer diagnosis (or other debilitating life event).
  • Then turn the page over and list the acts of kindness that you remember, the ones that made a difference, or gave you hope,
  • Re-examine rediscover you thought you lost. Has your experience helped you to see things in a different life?

As you write, explore what you’ve lost and what you’ve found.

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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