Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times. As Sharon puts it, “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.” Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.
by Sharon Bray, Ed.D.
Loss. It’s something that seems to dog you at every turn when you are dealing with cancer. It’s a persistent shadow, sorrow that accompanies the awareness of how your life is changed– not in ways you wished for or anticipated. At every new series of my “Writing through Cancer” workshops, loss is a dominant theme in the beginning weeks. I often begin with the poem, “What You Realize When Cancer Comes,” by Larry Smith, a cancer survivor and poet, to help participants begin to articulate the losses they have experienced. Smith writes:
You will not live forever—No,
you will not, for a ceiling of clouds
hovers in the sky.
You are not as brave
as you once thought.
Sounds of death
echo in your chest.
You feel the bite of pain,
the taste of it running
Following the telling to friends
comes a silence of
felt goodbyes. You come to know
the welling of tears…
Smith’s sentiments echo those experienced by many of the men and women in my workshops. At one beginning session some time ago, I read the poem aloud and asked the participants to write about the feelings they experienced in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. When I invited anyone to read aloud, P., a young wife and mother, immediately volunteered.
“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she read. “It’s been my signature, long and full…” Her voice faltered as she looked up from her notebook and reached for a tissue , her eyes filling with tears. Several women nodded sympathetically; several wore wigs or scarves. I remembered a time when I had also sported a bald head following neurosurgery during high school. I returned to school feeling conspicuous and unattractive. Brightly colored scarves merely advertised my condition, and, being a teenager, the fact my life had been saved did little to quell the embarrassment I felt. I prayed no one would stare or laugh at me.
My hair grew back of course, just as P.’s did, becoming full and long again over time. In hindsight, her anger dissipated. She realized hair loss was the least of the losses she experienced during treatment. She struggled with nausea and fatigue, watched her cottage business wan, and her children become subdued in her presence, worry etched on their faces. She recovered fully, but at times, her losses, although temporary, seemed overwhelming.
“Before you know what kindness really is/” poet Naomi Shihab-Nye writes, “you must lose things/ feel the future dissolve in a moment/ like salt in a weakened broth…” (From “Kindness,” In The Words Under the Words, 1994). I often read Shihab-Nye’s poem before inviting the men and women in my groups to write about the losses they have experienced during cancer. Besides hair, those have included breasts and other body parts, the sense of self they once knew, dreams, hopes, and even loved ones. For some, friendships were unexpectedly lost along the way. A cancer diagnosis, at least at first, was tantamount to being thrust onto a landscape of fear, loss, hopelessness and grief.
“Feel the future dissolve in a moment…” That’s how it feels when we hear those three words, “you have cancer.” We suddenly feel as if we have been robbed of joy or hope, replaced by fear and sorrow. Yet as treatment progresses, I witness a gradual transformation among those cancer survivors in my writing groups. Little by little, there is healing, illuminated in new discoveries—strengths they didn’t know they had, self-understanding, and a deeper appreciation of the world around them. Smith describes some of these realizations as his poem continues:
Your children are stronger
than you thought and
closer to your skin.
The beauty of animals
birds on telephone lines,
dogs who look into your eyes,
all bring you peace…
Your own hands look good to you.
old and familiar
When they take your picture now
you wet your lips, swallow once
and truly smile…
(From: A River Remains: Poems, by Larry Smith, 2006)
It’s important to articulate the losses you experience during illness. Expressive writing is healing, in part, because it helps us translate our difficult feelings into words; it’s a way to release them from the body and onto the page. Once you’ve defined your losses, there’s a second part, equally important. Now ask yourself what you have found in your cancer journey.
It’s a kind of balance sheet, taking stock of what you’ve lost, but also, what you’ve gained. When I ask the men and women in my groups to do this exercise, they most often discover their gains overshadow or outweigh the losses. As one person put it after reflecting on her balance sheet, “I’ve come to the realization that I am not my body.” New discoveries, knowledge, and self-insight, even new facets of themselves are the “finds” they want to cherish and explore. Cancer, several survivors have acknowledged, is a great teacher
Any significant hardship in life can teach us a lot about living. Everyone suffers hardship, pain and loss from time to time. Cancer or not, we only get one life; we are all mortal. The challenge is to learn to balance our losses with new discoveries and joys, a passion for each day we are alive. I see this happen again and again in my groups. Cancer teaches us to find and cherish the gift of each day we’re given. I’ve come to believe that perhaps a life well-lived is the greatest achievement for anyone, something echoed in the wisdom shared with a graduating class by Pulitzer prize winner Anna Quindlen:
…Something really, really bad happened to me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had my druthers, it would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, seems to be the hardest lesson of all. I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that it is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get…think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived… (Commencement address, Villanova University, 2000)
Think of life as a terminal illness…You’re living with cancer, a journey no one would volunteer to take, but what have you learned from it? Why not create a balance sheet? First, fold a sheet of paper in half. On one side of the page, list the losses you’ve experienced due to cancer. On the other, list the gains, the unexpected gifts you’ve discovered during your journey. Cancer might not be a terminal illness for you, but like it or not, life is. What do you learn from your balance sheet? How has cancer changed the way you think about life and living? Write, whether poetry or prose, about what you’ve lost and what you’ve found in the cancer experience.
Let us hear from you! CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon. Send them to Karen Irwin. 500 word limit.
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.