Three months after his diagnosis, my father died of lung cancer. Despite a lifelong addiction to cigarettes, a hacking cough that awakened us every morning, he dodged our pleas to see a doctor, and our attempts to help him break his habit. He suspected, I’m certain, what the doctor might find. By the time he sat down with an oncologist in 1992, he heard the verdict he feared most: a death sentence.
For three long months, I drove north 350 miles every other weekend to be with my parents. My mother was distraught. My father, full of remorse, savored every opportunity to have his family with him. We sat outside those weekend mornings, Dad with his oxygen tank nearby, both of us warming our hands with our coffee cups. He did most of the talking, reminiscing and sharing stories from his life. Some I’d heard before, begging him for “just one more story” before bedtime when I was a child; but others were new to me—difficult as well as humorous memories of his childhood, World War II, or the hunting and fishing trips he took each year with his brothers. His stories were often humorous—Dad always liked a “good” story. As he talked, I saw again the familiar twinkle in his eyes, but often, his cheeks were damp with tears. I sat, enthralled and attentive, trying to find ways to cement his stories into my mind, knowing they would be his enduring legacy, stories I would tell to my daughters and grandchildren.
Eight years after his death, my routine mammogram revealed an early stage breast cancer. I thought often of my father in the weeks that followed, the hand fate deals us, and my life. I turned to what I had always done during times of struggle and crisis: I wrote, filling pages with questions, emotional outpourings and memories. Writing was my way of exploring and making sense out of what was happening in my life, what psychologist James Pennebaker described as “healing narratives,” the stories that help us heal from the pain of loss, debilitating illness and other emotional hardships.
A few months after my treatment, I wrote a proposal for a series of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors. The “Writing through Cancer” program launched at the first series at a breast cancer services non-profit, and initiating several other programs in non-profits and cancer centers in the San Francisco Bay area and in San Diego, something I have done for nearly fifteen years. Cancer, never wished for, had forced me to reconsider my life—and the work I wanted to do. A writer since my teenage years, I decided it was time to make time for what I loved most—and what I knew from personal experience was an important tool for healing.
Cancer, of all types and stages, brings people to my writing groups. They come to write and share their experiences of cancer and all it involves. For many weeks, the narratives or poetry that is written is dominated by illness. Emotions are strong, raw, and what is written expresses the fear, anger, vulnerability or self-questioning that accompanies a cancer diagnosis. Cancer is the starting point, but as the weeks progress, other parts of life find their way into the writing. These are individuals’ stories, ones of love, family, childhood, and gratitude. They rediscover themselves and the realization that it’s not cancer that ultimately defines us, but life. And those life stories, as Virginia Woolf once wrote, tell how we became who we are: “but in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story—and there are so many, and so many—stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, and death…” Woolf was not a cancer survivor, but her life was not without suffering. Yet she also understood that life included many more stories than those of hardship.
It’s not just illness, loss or trauma that reflects a person’s life. Alice Hoffman, writing in the New York Times about the importance of her writing during ten months of treatment for breast cancer, offered a unique perspective on life and cancer:
An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears, that invite you to step to the other side of the curtain, the one that divides those of us who must face our destiny sooner rather than later. (Writers on Writing: “Sustained By Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” August 14, 2000).
Cancer does give you a wallop, whether it’s your diagnosis or that of a loved one. In those first weeks of shock and disbelief, it can feel as if cancer is defining, even directing, your life. Your voices—and stories—may be temporarily silenced, but it’s important to reclaim them. It’s in the stories from your whole life that you gain perspective, find healing, and the assurance your life has mattered. Your stories offer an open door to discovery, not only what your life has meant, but how you want to live for however long you have left—they help you remember and affirm what truly matters.
There’s something more our stories do for us. They offer, as Judith Ortiz Cofer describes in her most recent memoir, The Cruel Country, a kind of immortality, of being remembered. She writes: …I have learned that story assuages grief, and it also grants the chaos of our emotions some shape and order…Even as I watch my mother become more and more distant from the lives around her…I am doing what I have been preparing all my life to do: listening again to the old stories and committing them to memory in order to preserve them. I am still doing my work in terms of what I have come to believe defines immortality. Being remembered. (In: The Cruel Country, ©2015. University of Georgia Press)
During the first weeks of my writing groups, cancer dominates all that is written and shared. The writing is raw, emotional, sometimes disjointed. But as the weeks pass, there is movement toward a coherent narrative, descriptive, vivid and, for the listener, powerful. There is a shift to less looking only inward and more examination of the landscape of one’s entire life. Other themes, like gratitude, hope or love, begin to be expressed. Cancer takes a back seat as those memories are written and shared from the “whole book” of a person’s life. By then, if you happen to eavesdrop outside the door of the conference room where my writing groups meet, it’s likely you’ll hear laughter more often than weeping.
“Death steals everything but our stories,” Jim Harrison wrote. Well after the workshops end, and long after some group members may lose their lives to cancer, we recall their stories, their faces and lives. Their stories endure and are remembered.
Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.
In my “Writing through Cancer” workshops, cancer may be where everyone begins, but it’s in shared stories that people rediscover their lives and learn from their experiences. Grief is softened, even transformed, and healing begins. “Their stories, yours, mine—it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take,” William Carlos Williams, physician and poet, advised a medical student, “we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.”
“…to respect our stories and learn from them.” Writing out of pain and struggle has many health benefits, as the research has shown us, but there’s tacit acknowledgement in my writing groups that cancer is only one part – one chapter – of a person’s life. Writing heals, yes, but that’s something great writers acknowledged by many great writers long before psychologists appeared with their research studies. Stories are uniquely human, and writing them is also about discovery. Our stories provide new insights and meaning; they communicate who we are and why our lives matter. They are our legacies: a way of remembering and being remembered. If you don’t tell your story, who will?
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.