For the Week of October 16, 2017: When Life Hurts, What Sustains You?

It’s difficult to imagine the many lives that have been lost or devastated in the past few weeks by fire, hurricanes, shootings or bombings.  Each day seems to only bring more reports of tragedy–loss and destruction.  Last week I wrote of friends diagnosed with metastatic cancer  and those who had lost their homes in the California wildfires.   They have all occupied a permanent place in my daily thoughts, my concern for them and hope for their recovery filling the pages of my journal.  It was difficult to imagine any more heartache and tragedy coming in the wake of the past few weeks, but last night we learned of another loss.  This one affected me even more than the others, because it was the death of a friend’s grandchild, the victim of an automobile crash and a drunk driver.  My emotions ran the gamut of shock, sorrow and not a little bit of anger ignited by the circumstances of the death.  An unnecessary death of an innocent child.

But now, I am struggling to know what to say or how to offer support and help for the family.  I am worried how they will cope and deal with a tragedy no one should have to experience.  I walked early this morning, sifting through my thoughts before returning to write in an attempt to make sense of it all.  Gradually, what I was writing took on the form of a prayer, first for the child whose life was lost and then for her family, struggling with overwhelming grief and heartbreak.  I am not one who prays regularly, nor do I attend church each Sunday as I used to do so many years ago, and yet, I know that writing each morning as I do is both a meditation and a prayer, something I recall the poet, Denise Levertov, saying in her final interview:   “When you’re caught up in writing, “it can be a form of prayer.”

I don’t think our friend and her family are members of a church nor very religious, and I wonder now what will help them through this horrible loss.  Certainly the support of their close-knit family will be important, but could their prayers or the prayers of others help?   Perhaps, as the book, Healing Words:  The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, written by Larry Dossey, MD, suggests.  It’s interesting that in this day of modern medicine, something as basic as prayer can have beneficial impact on our health and well-being. Dossey summarizes a number of studies demonstrating the positive influences of prayer on health and healing among patients with breast cancer, HIV, and coronary disease, among others.  I remember the words of one writing group member a few years ago as she reflected on her recovery:  “I believe that everyone’s prayers helped me make it through with grace and strength.”

We find prayer in every religion and culture, written in every language.  Studies have found that religion and spirituality are very important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.  Prayer sustains us and offers solace.  For me,  daily writing is a deeply spiritual practice.  Although religion and spirituality are related, they are not synonymous.  Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group, while spirituality is more concerned with our beliefs about the meaning of life.  You may think of yourself as religious or spiritual or both.

Whatever our religious or spiritual beliefs, one’s faith or spirituality can provide strength and comfort.  “As part of our wholeness,” Stephen Levine said in a 1994 Sun interview, “we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”

The tragedies in your lives may seem like a dark night of the soul and even challenge your faith, but life’s difficult and painful experiences also offer the chance to explore your spirituality, deepen your self-understanding and compassion for others. “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot,” more than a few of my writing group members remark after cancer treatment.  Others turn their writing into prayer, as L. did, asking for mercy as  she struggled through chemotherapy:

A wad of pain
In the pit of my stomach
Lord have mercy

I focus on it
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy…

L.’s writing, begun in response to a group prompt, led her into a prayer.  Writing can, as hers did and this morning, mine, even become the prayer itself.  Writing takes us deep into ourselves, and in the wake of life’s tragedies, sorrow and suffering, it can become a prayer of sorts, a deeply spiritual practice.  We write raw, honestly and as we do, the irrelevant and unnecessary falls away to reveal the meaning in our lives.  Call it what you will–hope, prayer, faith, or meditation–we stumble onto a higher consciousness, something larger than ourselves.

When K., a young woman in her twenties, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she confessed to the writing group that she had never been one to go to church.  Now she felt as if she needed to rely on something bigger than herself.  “I think I need a boost in the power of faith,” she said.  “Faith, I have decided is an important part of human life.”

In Buddhism, understanding nourishes faith. The act of looking deeply within ourselves not only fosters self-understanding, it can strengthen our faith.  V., who died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago, wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly.  As she neared her final weeks, she examined her faith, acknowledging that although it had been challenged by cancer, her faith had offered her strength and solace.  .

But our relationship has changed.  In asking me to surrender to this illness, God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.  And I have found this to be a most precious time.  My cancer has challenged my faith, and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.  I have found true surrender, enormous peace.

V.’s words are ones I return to often in my writing groups as I think about what sustains us all in dark and seemingly inconsolable times in our lives.  Faith, prayer, meditation, the community of others’ support–we learn again to open our hearts to caring, compassion and connectedness with each other– it lets the healing in.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Today, my heart is again heavy with sorrow and the weight of unanswerable questions. I have turned to what sustains me in times of sorrow and pain:  long walks in the quiet of early morning, a practice of writing–my meditation, my prayer.  What sustains you in those incomprehensible moments of loss or tragedy?
  • Reflect on the beliefs or spiritual practices that sustain you.  Write about the importance of prayer, meditation, faith or community during difficult times in your life.
  • Perhaps your faith has been challenged by unexpected tragedy.  Perhaps your illness or struggles led you to a spiritual journey you didn’t anticipate.  Where have you found solace and strength in the midst of hardship?
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For the Week of October 10, 2017: When Life Changes. Fast.

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007

I’ve been asking myself how do we come to terms with the impermanence of life?  How it constantly shifts and changes?  How do we come to terms with our own inevitable mortality or with the sudden and inexplicable losses suffered in a mass shooting, or the natural disasters of hurricanes and wildfires?

It’s difficult for me to begin this post this week, to find the words that will capture the thoughts and emotions triggered by the enormous losses of human lives, homes and belongings in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, three powerful hurricanes, and the wildfires raging in California.  This morning I learned that two of our friends lost their family home and all their belongings in the wine country wildfires.  Last week, I received the news of two dear friends diagnosed with cancer, and one of them metastatic.  The news shook me out of my daily zone of comfort and small, everyday worries, and the next day, the poem, “Elegy,” by Linda Pastan, appeared in my inbox–a daily “gift” from The Writers’ Almanac.

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic

of the days when dogwoods


When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.

(From:  “Elegy” by Linda Pastan from Insomnia: Poems. © 2015)

Life has its seasons, ones we know well and expressed in Pastan’s poem; ones we observe in Nature annually; ones that are the metaphors for our lives, beginning, maturing, and gradually ending.  Yet the unexpected, the disruptions to this natural cycle throw us off-center, leaving us with questions we cannot answer, and wounds that take a long time to heal over–though some never do.  These are the times when one’s sense of mortality, of the certainty of life we thought we knew, changes abruptly and we are propelled into unwelcome fears of the outcome.

I remember the sudden loss of my first husband.  We’d separated and were navigating a push-pull round of emotions, never in sync with one another, when he died suddenly in a drowning accident.  I was overcome with emotions and questions that took years to resolve.  When I learned of our friends’ home being lost in a wildfire, it ignited the memories of the night my family’s home burned to the ground, and in the years that followed, how my parents never completely recovered from the loss.  Then, years later, I collapsed on the pavement a block from my home and was diagnosed with heart failure, something that, for months afterward, kept me tossing and turning at night, a fear of sudden mortality my regular visitor.

This too, is life.  Any unexpected hardship, life-threatening illness or loss thrusts us into new and unfamiliar territory, into a different chapter of life than the one we thought we were living.  “The knowledge you’re ill…” Anatole Broyard wrote “is one of the momentous experiences of life” (in: Intoxicated by My Illness, 1993).  So momentous, in fact, it sometimes overshadows everything that came before it.  It’s what I witness in every cancer writing group: shock, pain and yet, inevitably, the resilience of the men and women living with cancer.  When they first hear the word, “cancer,” it’s momentous and overwhelming.  Many will recover, but for some, it may signal their final chapter of life.  Yet I think of so many who, facing their final months of life, do not let cancer define them.

Cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter, Alice Hoffman said, writing about her cancer experience in a 2000 New York Times article.   I often use her words in my groups, because they remind us that although our lives may be turned inside out by cancer—or any other sudden tragedy or life threatening event– loss, illness, or our belongings–it does not define who we are.  I think of A., a former member of a writing group, who died two years ago.  She often said, when introducing herself, “I may have cancer, but it doesn’t have me.”  What cancer taught her was to live as fully as she could, to be present to life, every single day of however long she had.

Any life threatening illness, significant loss or tragedy changes us.  As sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank said, “…by the time we have lived through it, we are living differently” (in: At the Will of the Body, 2002).  Who we are, truly, may become more apparent how we choose to deal with our illness or loss.  This is what makes us uniquely human–our spirit, determination, resilience—and they are never more apparent than when illness or loss strips all pretense away.

Life will sometimes wallop us, brings us to our knees, to tears, and yet it is our greatest teacher too.  It says, “Listen up,” and teaches us something about ourselves.  All we know is that life will change again–and again.  We will be affected, perhaps multiple times, by a triggering event, whether tragedy, illness, unimaginable loss or awakening to the reality that we are moving toward the winter of our lives and the realization, as Pastan says, what we took for granted, “that the world would remain/as it was, and I/would remain with it.”

I don’t have answers–for myself or anyone else.  I’ve sat with the sorrow and losses of the past few days.  I’ve written about them, trying to make sense–yet again–of life and how it can change so dramatically in a single moment.  Yet I am reminded, as I have been before, of how precious life is, and how I constantly have to remind myself not to squander it–rather, to learn, again and again, to be mindful of how I live my life every single day.

Writing Suggestion:

What is the most significant event you’ve experienced thus far in your life?  Describe it in as much detail as you can.  Then take a break.  Re-read what you’ve written.  Turn to a fresh page.  Now reflect on how your life changed after that event and what you learned from it.  How does it continue to inform your present life?

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October 9, 2017: Canadian Thanksgiving Day

Dear Readers:  Today we’re celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with family and friends.  Happy Thanksgiving to all our Canadian readers.  Regular posts will resume Tuesday, October 10th.

Sharon Bray

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For the Week of October 2, 2017: Living Your Questions

I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.― Patricia Hampl

For several years, I’ve taught  transformational writing (writing to heal) for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. At the beginning of each new course, I routinely ask my students for brief synopses of the writing project that had prompted them to enroll for the class.  Not surprisingly, most students could only describe what it was they wanted to write in the most general of terms, no matter the pain or trauma that had brought them to the course.  What they quickly learn is that writing, no matter the genre or form, is always an act of discovery.

We write, as author Patricia Hampl  said, not about what we know, but to find out what we know.  Plumb the depths of sorrow, suffering or trauma, and you find question upon question.  Writing ultimately leads you to some answers, but it demands you stay open to the possibility of surprise, of discovering that what you thought you were going to write may not be what is written at all.  The answers we seek, whether in life or in fiction, are gradually revealed.  We struggle for answers and grope blindly in the darkness before we stumble on a new insight, or new direction.  E.L. Doctorow, award winning novelist, summed up the process of writing a story:  “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Living with cancer is not unlike the trip Doctorow describes. Diagnosis introduces a multitude of questions, ones you can ask your doctors; others that keep you awake during the night.  You get through the surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, but even after all that, you still can’t see too far ahead, despite every assurance offered.  Your life is punctuated by many more questions than answers.  “How likely is it to recur?  What if the cancer has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? How long do I have?”  The truth is that no one knows for certain.  You navigate through it all in the same way a writer writes a memoir or a novel, able to see only a short distance along the path, but trusting that little by little, you’ll find your way into the answers you seek.  For example, in a poem written during her treatment, one woman questions what she can do:

Can I? Can I just do it? Can I do it all?
Can I ration my time to allow for my priorities?
Can I ask others to share the burdens?
Can I refuse this role of superwoman?
Can I just ‘say no?’

Her questions gradually lead her to answers, actions she can take:

I can. I can just say no. I can just say,
“I’m out of the business of doing it all.”
I can take time for myself to breathe
And dream or just sit quietly.
And I will!

(“I Can’t,” by Carlene Shaff, In: ” Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry,” by Robert Carroll, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Jun; 2(2): 161–172.)

In my cancer writing groups, I sometimes use the poem, “Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors” by Elena Georgiou, as a prompt inviting participants to explore the questions they have in their lives.  Georgiou asks several questions of herself in the poem, for example:

Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?

If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?

If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?

If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?

If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?

How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?

Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?

(In: Mercy Mercy Me by Elena Georgiou. Copyright © 2000)

Georgiou offers no answers to the reader, only questions.  “Don’t search for the answers,” Maria Rainer Rilke counseled a youthful protégé in Letters to a Young Poet, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Live everything.  Live the questions…  Live the questions now.  Live your way into the answer.   Rilke’s words stay with us.  Living ourselves into the answers is not an easy thing to do, especially when we’re faced with something as life-threatening as cancer, and yet, it is all we can do.  There are no guarantees, no crystal balls to foretell our futures.  We live our way into the answers we seek.

Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life. — ― J.D. Stroube

Writing Suggestions:

  • Explore the questions you face, whether triggered by a cancer diagnosis or another unexpected difficulty. Make a list in the style of Georgiou’s poem.  Then choose one and begin writing.  After 15 – 20 minutes, stop.  Reread what you’ve written.  Did you discover anything new? Keep writing.  You just may write yourself into some of the answers you seek.
  • Think of a time earlier in your life.  What questions did you have and how did you have live your way into answers?  What did you discover?  Which questions seemed most persistent?  Looking back, how were your questions resolved?
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For the Week of September 25, 2017: The Power of Gratitude

If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”                     German philosopher, Meister Eckhart

In a time when we are constantly confronted with world crises–the devastation of Nature’s wrath, global warming,  poverty, famine, war or terrorist attacks on innocent people, or living with a life- threatening illness like cancer–life may seem overwhelming, and it can it be difficult to remember or feel gratitude. Yet every time I watch the evening news, there’s a story, an example, of individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by crisis or tragedy expressing gratitude for whatever help, hope or unexpected acts of kindness they discover among the rubble of their lives.  It always gives me pause for thought–a little nudge to not “let the turkeys” get me down.

Last night, tired from a busy weekend, I restlessly flipped through channel after channel of football, before settling on the final segments of CBS’s 60 Minutes.  I’m glad I did.  Senator John McCain, recently diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most virulent and deadly forms of brain cancer, was being interviewed by broadcast journalist, Leslie Stahl.  McCain,  a POW during the Vietnam War, is no stranger to suffering, yet his spirit and determination–qualities that likely helped him survive the torture and hardship in a POW camp–are as strong as ever.  When his doctors confirmed his cancer diagnosis, he responded by saying,  “I understand. Now we’re going to do what we can, get the best doctors we can find and do the best we can.’ And, at the same time, celebrate with gratitude a life well lived.”

McCain begins his day with chemotherapy and radiation before he goes to work in the Senate, explaining this to Stahl  as being “more energetic and more engaged as a result of this because I know that I’ve got to do everything I can to serve this country while I can.”  The senator admitted that sometimes, yes, he feels fear about what may happen, but he reminds himself that he has experienced a great life and celebrates it with gratitude.  “I am so grateful,” he remarked near the end of the interview, “every night I am filled with gratitude.”

Gratitude, as McCain likely knows well,  is good for us.  A sizeable body of research has been conducted on the positive effects of gratitude, including its emotional and interpersonal benefits.  For example, research suggests that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.  Other studies show that those who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives, and are generally more optimistic.  Grateful individuals also report more positive connections with others, satisfaction with their lives, and demonstrate a greater tendency towards empathy and generosity toward others   (McCullough et al, 2002- 2003).

“…celebrate with gratitude for a life well lived.”  McCain’s interview gave me pause.  I’ve been hovering on the brink of feeling sorry for myself in the wake of a computer crash, the dull pain of an arthritic knee, and a host of bureaucratic frustrations as I re-settle in Toronto.  Little by little, things continue to improve, but it doesn’t take much some days to find anger, worry or frustration seeping into my thoughts and coloring my mood.  I know how powerful gratitude is, but despite that, I am challenged, some days, to  consciously re-direct my thoughts to the things in life that keep me going, provide solace, joy and gratitude.  In a world so fraught with divisiveness, crises, suffering and fear, gratitude becomes all the more important.

In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer―Letters and Papers from Prison

Gratitude was on my mind last week when I met with the executive director of Toronto’s Gilda’s Club  just as it had been two weeks earlier, when I met with the executive director at Wellspring, a cancer support services organization in the greater Toronto area.   The services and support offered to those living with cancer encourages gratitude–even in the midst of something as devastating as cancer.  I was reminded that while I have loved returning to this city, I have greatly missed the expressive writing groups I led for so many years in California, and I was grateful that both Toronto organizations welcomed me and having an opportunity for us to learn about one another.

As I described my  expressive writing programs, I recalled how many years earlier, when I first came to as a recently widowed single parent, how very raw and emotional I had been with grief.  I began seeing a therapist, and as the sessions progressed, I cautiously began to bring a poem I’d written –poems that spoke to what I was feeling, struggling with, trying to resolve.  A routine developed between us, one that would influence not only my healing, but the workshops I would later lead for cancer patients.   At the beginning of the session, I read the poem aloud then gave my therapist a copy.  He never questioned nor attempt to interpret what I had written.  Instead, he responded only with gratitude, just two words, “thank you,” that did more, in those vulnerable weeks, to build trust, self-affirmation and buoy my spirits than, perhaps, anything.  To this day, when someone volunteers to read aloud in my writing groups, I respond immediately with those same two words, “thank you,” so powerful is the gift of gratitude to the human spirit.

So today, I focus on gratitude.  I’m grateful for the first signs of autumn in the maple trees outside our windows, for the companionship and conversation with old friends over a Sunday lunch, for the latte my husband brought me from the cafe across the street this morning.  But in particular, I’m grateful I paused to stop flipping television channels and hear the interview with Senator McCain.  It was a well-timed “listen up” to help me right my sagging mood at the end of a trying week.

Gratitude is infectious.  Try it on for size today or this week if you find yourself slipping into self-pity or sorrow.  Take a walk.  Remember what you have that gives you joy.  Pause at a tree, its colors turning in the first days of autumn.  Remember to say those two simple words, “thank you,” to a loved one, the cashier at the market, the awkward teenager who suddenly remembers the lesson his parents have tried to teach him and opens the door to let an elder person pass through before him.  “Thank you.”  It’s a little infusion of gratitude.  And when the world gets us down, it’s all the more important we stop and remember what we are grateful for.

This is what life does.  It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…

…And then life lets you go home to think
about all this.  Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out.  This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…

(From:  “Starfish,” by Eleanor Lerman, in: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Writing Suggestion:

Is life getting you down?  This week, take some time to write down one thing you are grateful for each morning.  That’s it:  just one.  As the week progresses, return to those few sentences and reflect on the power of gratitude.  Did anything change?  If so, how?  If not, explore that.  Write a short poem or narrative on gratitude or the power of having someone say, “thank you.”

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For the Week of September 17, 2017: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”

Don’t wish it away
Don’t look at it like it’s forever
Between you and me I could honestly say
That things can only get better

(From: “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” by Bernie Taupin; sung by Elton John, 1983)

It hasn’t been the best week for me. Nine days ago, my computer crashed. Went kaput. Left me like an ex-lover in the middle of an afternoon. No warning—or rather, none that I noticed, so caught up in my “to-do” lists that I gave the slower functioning of my machine barely a thought. Then it happened. I’d had a great meeting with a Toronto cancer support services organization and sat down to follow-up with a thank-you and a short description of my expressive writing workshops. I turned on my computer. Nothing. I tried again, multiple times, and still, nothing. Shock, disbelief and panic followed in short order. And despite three days in the computer repair shop, I was still unable to access important files or my email contacts. Any action I took seemed to complicate an already complicated recovery process. Frustration, stress, loss…all technology-related, which, in the greater scheme of things now seems trite, but by Tuesday, the turkeys had me down. I had a full blown case of the blues.

“I guess that’s why they call it the blues…” I kept hearing Elton John’s voice in my head. I was stuck in the middle of the blues, but I wondered, why are those periods of feeling downhearted and depressed called“the blues?” I love blues music, and I never leave a live performance feeling down. Quite the contrary.  So I did some checking. Apparently “the blues” originated with a 17th century English expression (“the blue devils”) related to severe alcohol withdrawal, but over time, “the blues” signaled a state of agitation and depression. Gradually, the blues turned into music expressing the singer’s passions and struggles.

Here’s the thing: According to Web MD, “sooner or later, everyone gets the blues.” It’s a fact of life. We all experience difficult experiences in our lives—loss, serious illness, financial hardship, the aftermath of natural disasters, and so much more. It’s normal to feel sadness, grief, loneliness, or malaise during those times. And the majority of the time, we are able to bounce back, pick our lives and ourselves up and begin again.

Everyday, everyday I have the blues
Ooh everyday, everyday I have the blues

(—B.B. King, “Everyday I Have the Blues”)

But what if you don’t bounce back? What if your feelings of sadness linger, are excessive, or interfere with your work, sleep, or even your recreation? Perhaps fatigue,worthlessness, or weight changes accompany your feelings of sadness. That’s more than “the blues.” You may be experiencing major depression, a medical condition that goes beyond life’s ordinary ups and downs. According to Web MD, Almost 18.8 million American adults experience depression each year, and women are twice as likely as men to develop it. In those cases, professional help and treatment are key to recovery.

The blues are common in cancer. Dana Price, author of “Block the Blues,” an article on the website, Cancer Fighters Thrive, says “considering the many concerns patients can face with cancer and related treatments: confronting mortality, managing financial stressors or job responsibilities, and the physical side effects of treatment and surgery trigger strong emotional responses—ones that may fall within the spectrum of anxiety and depression. Price notes that it is sometimes difficult for patients or caregivers to know if their “cancer blues” are normal or signs of a more serious depression and offers wisdom from Dr. Laura Sunn, psychiatrist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. “It’s not unusual for people to have strong emotional responses,” Sunn says. “In treating cancer patients, we’re aware that these responses may fall in the spectrum of anxiety and depression.”

It’s no wonder, considering the many concerns patients can face with cancer and related treatment. Confronting mortality, managing financial stressors and job responsibilities, and coping with physical side effects of treatment can all be significant worries. “If you’re suffering worry every day and losing sleep, this can lead to depression,” Sunn says.

When the worry and stress begin to affect your normal daily life, however, it’s time to seek professional help. .Left untreated, depression can be debilitating and, Sunn states, “result in a loss of hope.”

You got to help me darlin’
I can’t do it all by myself
You got to help me, baby
I can’t do it all by myself
You know if you don’t help me darling
I’ll have to find myself somebody else

(Sonny Boy Williamson II, “Help Me”)

What can you do if you’re feeling sad and depressed? These tips offered by the Canadian Cancer Society are helpful to any of us who may be dealing with the blues, whether cancer-related or due to other upsetting or stressful experiences.  Here are steps you can take:

  • Talk to family members or friends about these feelings or talk to someone who has had a similar experience.
  • Seek out positive people and events to keep your spirits up.
  • Eat well and be as physically active as possible. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters.
  • Try to relieve tension with yoga or meditation.
  • Look to your spiritual faith for comfort. Talk to a spiritual leader or clergy member for help in hard times.
  • Talk to your healthcare team or your family doctor. They can refer you to a mental health expert who specializes in treating depression.
  • Ask your doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist about medicine to treat depression.

Well, as Amy Winehouse once said, “every bad situation is a blues song waiting
to happen.” Yes, even a computer crash. When the frustration overflowed yesterday afternoon, I knew it was time to stop. I shut the computer down, took a shower and belted out Elton John’s “I guess that’s why they call it the blues.” The song—and my horrible rendition of it—helped me rediscover my sense of humor. Later, my husband and I went out to a little jazz festival in Kensington Market, and as we stopped to hear the music, my trials with my computer malfunction became less important. We relaxed and enjoyed the music, and all the while, my blues began to fade. This morning, everything seemed much more manageable.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you suffered from the blues? What triggered the feeling? What did you do to help yourself overcome them?
  • Strong emotions accompany any upsetting event in our lives. Write about a time that an unexpected event happened to you: cancer, job loss, sudden loss of a loved one, a sudden break-up with a partner, or another difficult life experience. Try to recall and describe what you were feeling. What helped you through the shock, grief and loss.
  • Was Winehouse right? Is every bad situation the material for a blues song? What do you think?
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For September 10th, 2017: Lost & Found

Dear Readers,

Apologies to you all as this week is a repost from 2016.  However, given the circumstances that prompted me to return to earlier content, I’m hoping you’ll understand.  I will say, however, that in the midst of the devastation in Texas over a week ago, and now, Hurricane Irma plowing northward through Florida, my loss seems trivial.  But it has affected my ability to use my computer.  On Friday afternoon, my computer crashed, and with it, not only contacts and folders of various important information, but over a decade of manuscripts–unfinished stories and poems–and, you guessed it, a body of work devoted to expressive writing and cancer that, as I write this today, has been only partly recovered.  Given that, the topic of losing something and finding it–or having to re-invent it–seemed apropos.  I hope that by next weekend, I’ll be fully operational once more.  Thanks for understanding and following this weekly blog site.–Sharon Bray

For the Week of September 10, 2017:  Lost & Found

Death steals everything except our stories.–Jim Harrison

(From: “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” In Search of Small Gods, 2009)

Loss.  It’s something we’ve been witnessing as natural disasters–hurricanes, floods, wildfire–take toll on people and their lives.  Loss is also often synonymous with cancer–the loss of hair, parts of the body; self-image, dreams, or loss of loved ones.  In a world that seems to be dominated by losses, we feel overwhelmed and hopeless as we face a landscape defined  by tragedy, sorrow and grief.

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

When cancer strikes or you experience the kind of devastation suffered at the hands of Nature’s wrath, life, as you once knew it, is never the same afterward.  The landscape between what Shihab-Nye calls the  “regions of kindness,” does seem desolate.  What we took for granted seems like a distant memory.  And for a time, we grieve, yes, but hope somehow finds a way back to us, solace is given, and in those small moments of kindness, we start to see our world differently, and find our way back to life and begin to heal.  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 we least expect it, we discover kindness.  We make  new friends, build new dreams, and discover gratitude for small gifts life offers us, ones we overlooked or barely noticed before.  We find new facets of ourselves to explore, strength or resilience we never imagined possible.  Perhaps we even discover we haven’t lost as much as we 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.  Our words have the power to touch others.  We find new realms of creativity we never realized we possessed.  We find ourselves again.

Writing Suggestions:

I.   First, take a blank sheet of paper and list  all that you have lost–whether important keepsakes, friendships, loved ones or physical attributes and abilities you had before cancer.

  • Don’t stop there.  Turn the page over.  Now list the acts of kindness that you remember, the ones that made a difference.And gave you hope, helped you rediscover what you thought your lost or helped you see things in a new light.  Even, sometimes, helped you reinvent what you thought you lost into something new and even better.  Explore what you’ve lost and what you’ve found.

II.  Using Jim Harrison’s words, “death steals everything but our stories,” write about losing something or someone.  What stories about that thing or person  do you carry with you?  Write one of them.

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