For the Week of November 6, 2017: Cancer as a Journey

It’s a journey . . . that I propose . . .

. . . I will be your fellow passenger . . .

. . . we must provide our own guide-posts . . .

. . . the road washes out sometimes

. . . I am not afraid . . .

(From:  A Journey, by Nikki Giovanni, 1943)


Last week we arrived in Florida to visit my younger daughter and her family after three days of travel, driving from Toronto to her home in the Florida Panhandle.  Along the way, we observed the changes in weather, temperature, foliage and landscape as we left Canada and traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama before crossing into the state of Florida.

We hadn’t taken a road trip since last summer, when we drove north from San Diego to Gig Harbor, Washington.  As before, roadmaps, Google, and Siri’s somewhat mechanical voice were our constant guides, coupled with the many road signs along our route from north to south.  It was a  relatively uneventful yet enjoyable journey–made only slightly more complicated by having our dog, Maggie, traveling with us.  It wasn’t until I sat down to think about this week’s post that I thought many of the metaphors we use to describe our travel are also ones used for the journeys we travel in life.

Think about it. The word “journey” is a metaphor often used to describe the years between birth and death, its roots found in Homer’s epic poems or Dante Alighieris classic, The Inferno, and like those described by them, our  journeys are neither smooth nor predictable.  They are full of unexpected twists and turns, obstacles, and even periods of darkness.  When we attempt to describe those life experiences to others, we often invoke travel comparisons like “It’s been a bumpy ride;” “My life came to a full stop;” “I’m just taking it slow for a while.”  Even cancer, once commonly described by military metaphors like “battle,” “fight” or “war,” is now more often referred to as a journey, reminiscent of those life struggles found in Homer and Alighieri’s classic works.

Writing in the magazine, Slate, author Katy Waldman described the gradual shift away from reliance on military metaphors to describe cancer:  Journey, not nearly so grand or stirring, has a gentler virtue. Instead of focusing on outcomes—triumph or defeat—the word zeroes in on the everyday process of managing a chronic illness. It replaces the agon with mindfulness, a sensitivity to one’s needs and feelings, an understanding that the scenery might change.— (July 20, 2015)

Authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson, discussing the use of metaphors in cancer, describe the “journey” metaphor as one that encompasses 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)

Thankfully now, just as we have had the abundance of turn by turn directions to one city or interstate to another and advice from friends and family of places to stay or interesting spots to visit, there is no shortage of resources, advice and tips on navigating the cancer journey.  A single query on Google reveals dozens of sites with advice and tips from individuals and organizations alike.  It can be overwhelming as well as helpful, and it’s important to remember how valuable and necessary the support and advice can be from friends and colleagues who have experienced similar journeys.  Throughout my life–and even on a two-week road trip–I’ve cherished the support and advice of so many friends who’ve traveled ahead of me, whether in times of change, loss or illness.  They have been invaluable resources to help me prepare and find my way through the unknown territory I’ve encountered in life.

…a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds…
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: 

This week, extend and explore how you use a travel or journey metaphor in your life.  Here are some questions to consider as you write:

  • What is it like to travel along this road named “cancer”? Or perhaps, another life change like death of a loved one, job loss,  retirement or another unexpected life change?
  • How do you move through the questions, confusion and potential roadblocks of cancer to the “new normal” of life and discover how to live fully?
  • What helpful hints, experiences and impressions might you offer the inexperienced traveler on this road?
  • What is the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is just beginning their own journey defined by illness, loss, or new life stage?
  • What has been the single most important piece of advice someone gave you that helped you navigate a difficult life journey? Why?
  • As a different way of writing, use common road signs like “dangerous curves head,” “bumpy  or slippery road ahead,”  “dead-end,” “wrong way”   to inspire a humorous account of your cancer or another life journey.

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.
This entry was posted in expressive writing, reflections on life, writing from cancer and serious illness, writing from life, writing to heal. Bookmark the permalink.

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