by Sharon Bray, Ed.D.
She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories.
These two final lines of Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” tell of a young girl and her death from a bull goring. The poem is short, descriptions lean, but the impact of the final line is profound: “Death steals everything except our stories.”
Initially, a cancer diagnosis seems to steal your stories. Shock, anger, questions, and fear dominate your mind and emotions. It’s a chapter of life as Alice Hoffman, novelist and cancer survivor, once described, that can wallop you and bring you to tears. But your experience of cancer—your story—is a way you begin to examine your life, understand and learn from it. It’s also a way to help others.
Each week, in the writing groups I lead for people living with cancer, stories of each other’s cancer journeys are written and shared aloud. All have cancer in common, but each person’s story is unique. More importantly, the acts of sharing those stories create community and are a source of inspiration, courage, and knowledge—we learn what it means to “live with cancer.”
through the exchange of stories, [you] help heal each other’s spirits.
–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life
There are other benefits to sharing your cancer stories with others. When you write out of the cancer experience, it becomes a voyage of discovery, of making sense of life and clarifying what is important. As you do, you begin to heal, knowing why your life matters and how you want to live after treatment and recovery. Your story says: “This is my life. This is important to me. This is how I have become the person I am.” The shared stories of the cancer experience offer others understanding, hope and validation of what being a cancer survivor and a human being means.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist and author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning book of general nonfiction, honors your stories, patient and survivor, in an eloquent passage, saying, …the story of cancer–isn’t the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from one institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from one embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship–qualities often ascribed to great physicians–are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them…
As we celebrate World Cancer Day on February 4th, whether patient, doctor or nurse, consider sharing your stories inspired by the cancer experience, because, as stated on the WCD site, People living with cancer can play an important role in increasing knowledge about cancer, its prevention and detection, but importantly those shared stories reduce fear around …life after cancer.
It’s a call to action. Share your story.
Sharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site, www.writingthroughcancer.com, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.