Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” — Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005
In two days, I’m beginning a new “Writing Through Cancer” workshop series at Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, the expressive writing program I’ve been leading for over 17 years. As often as I’ve led these groups, one would think that I’d have it down pat now, you know, like an dancer who knows every step of a dance by heart, or the actor, on stage as the lead character in a play that’s run on Broadway for years. The choreography is as natural as walking; the lines of the play as fluid as a conversation with a friend. In some ways, yes, the flow of the sessions are as familiar to me as old friends, but always, despite the emotions and stages common to the cancer experience, every single workshop series is different, the product of the mix of participants and their uniqueness as individuals and as a group.
It’s no surprise that I spent the better part of yesterday thinking about the session, wondering what the mix of participants will be, how I’ll introduce the workshop to them, and how I’ll frame the first writing prompt. Where does one begin? In my writing groups, it’s most often in those moments before the realization that their lives had changed, the instant they embarked on the cancer journey. It’s the moment when, as Barbara Abercrombie describes in Writing Out the Storm (2002), “something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.”
He opens the door
and walks in,
his face and white coat
stiff with starch,
holds my hand, and
I am afraid
you have cancer…”
(From: “Diagnosis,” by Majid Mohiuddin, in The Cancer Poetry Project, v. 1, 2001)
“You have cancer.” The words sound like a cosmic bad joke or a death sentence. Sometimes, like in the moment my father was told he had Stage 4 lung cancer, it is one. Emotions rush in, competing for attention: disbelief, sorrow, anger, fear, guilt. You rail against the diagnosis in one moment and break down in tears the next. You’re in the middle of a personal disaster. Why is this happening? What can I expect? Will I die?
It’s those vivid memories and emotions that are important to describe in writing for healing. To be healing, it doesn’t mean you write in generalities about a traumatic or stressful event. Healing writing has particular characteristics, as psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues noted in their substantive research on writing’s health benefits. Healing writing is concrete, vivid, and contains detailed descriptions of trauma, distress and emotion.
Whenever I ask people in our beginning session to recall the moment they first heard the word, “cancer,” no one ever responds with generalities. Even if it’s several months or more since they were first diagnosed, the memory is vivid; emotions rise to the surface as they write and when they share what they’ve written. The remembrance of that single moment evokes strong feelings among everyone as they each describe what it was like to be told, “you have cancer.”
Those words “you have cancer,” are ones you hear for the first time and yet, for the physician, these are words delivered to a patient many times over one’s medical career. What goes through a physician’s mind in the moment before a patient is given the diagnosis? Jennifer Frank, MD, describes the moment before she delivers a cancer diagnosis to a patient:
I want to be straightforward but not blunt. I want to be compassionate but remain professional. I slow myself down, remind myself that the words I’m about to say are ones that I’ve said before, many times, but that the words I’m about to say are also ones you’ve never heard before…[underlining is mine] (From: “A Piece of My Mind,” JAMA, March 7, 2012, v.307. no.9).
The words “you’ve never heard before…” Writing in the New York Times in 2000, novelist Alice Hoffman described what it was like to hear those words when her doctor telephoned her with the results of her biopsy:
I was certain my doctor was phoning me to tell me the biopsy had come back negative…but then she said, “Alice, I’m so sorry.” …In a single moment the world as I knew it dropped away from me, leaving me on a far and distant planet, where…nothing made sense anymore. (From: “Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” August 2000.)
This first moment, the moment life began to spin on a different axis, when nothing seems to make sense, is the beginning of each person’s stories of the cancer experience. It’s an important one to begin with, because once described, it opens the door to all that begs to be written and expressed about living with cancer. It’s an invitation to examine and make sense of, your stories of illness, but in doing so, we remember these are also the stories of being human, of life, because cancer can happen to anyone, and, as Alice Hoffman wrote in her NYTimes article, it does not have to be your whole book, only a chapter.
It’s part of the reason I love leading these groups, why I am always inspired and humbled by the power and beauty of what the men and women write and share in the workshop sessions. We remember; we cry; we laugh; we share our stories around the table and honor, together, what it means to be human.
- Start at the beginning. Whether cancer or any other unexpected or traumatic moment in your life, go back to the day, the setting, the people, the moment that your world began to spin on a different axis, the moment something happened that changed the world as you knew it.
- You can begin with phrases like, “I remember…,” or “The day that ____ happened, I…” It doesn’t matter.
- Do try writing without pause. What’s important is that you write freely, without your internal critic whispering in your ear.
- Set the timer for 20 minutes and begin. Keep the pen moving.
- When time is up, read over what you’ve written, first simply writing the piece all the way through without stopping. Then read it a second time, underlining phrases and words that stand out, “glow” from the page.
- Now, write again for 20 minutes, but this time, begin with one of the phrases you’ve underlined. Chances are the writing will intensify, become more specific and descriptive.