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.
Being a cancer patient is a full time job. Once you’ve been diagnosed and treatment begins, your weeks are defined by a schedule of appointments with your medical team, ongoing tests, blood draws, surgeries, chemotherapy, dealing with side effects, support groups and whatever else your doctor prescribes or advises. You’re focused. You want to beat this thing called cancer, and you muster your resources, internal and external, to do just that.
In the cancer writing groups I lead, the first weeks of participants’ writing express the physical and emotional hardship of having cancer: shock and disbelief, fear and anger, coming to terms with an altered body. Questions of life after cancer rarely surface in our first weeks together. It’s only toward the end of a ten week program that the themes in the writing begin to shift; questions of life post treatment surface. There’s a sense of excitement to have it over, but they have been changed by the cancer experience, and ask themselves, “What will my life be like now?”
A few months ago, I offered a writing prompt to one of my groups that the question posed by Mary Oliver in the final two lines of her poem, “The Summer Day” Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? I saw a few furrowed brows, a shrug of the shoulders as everyone began writing. Within moments, I watched as pens moved rapidly across their pages. Afterward, as different writers read aloud, we discovered that among those whose treatment was ending—or had already ended– the answer to the question “what do you plan to do…” was not at all clear. The experience of cancer had muddied their sense of purpose.
While some may find it easy to resume their lives after cancer, it’s much more common to experience a period of “let down.” Cancer survivors frequently report that the time after treatment is one of the most emotional periods in their lives. Increased anxiety or depression is a very natural post-treatment response, according to Dr. Frances Goodhart, a clinical psychologist and co-author of The Cancer Survivor’s Companion ( Piatkus; 2013):
When you find out you have cancer, it can all happen very quickly – the diagnosis followed by treatment decisions within days – and then you often go through a grueling time getting through the treatments with loved ones and healthcare professionals all around you, helping you through it. It’s only afterwards, when your support team has gone and you have the time to think about what you’ve been through, that you feel the effects…
While a cancer diagnosis is shocking and upsetting, it focuses your energy on winning your fight against it. Your purpose is clear: to survive. You rarely lose sight of this goal during the process of treatment and recovery. There’s very little time to consider what happens after treatment ends, but when it does and the initial euphoria subsides, you may be surprised at how you feel. Dana Jennings, editor and survivor of prostate cancer, described his “post treatment let-down” in a New York Times column, “Losing a Comforting Ritual: Treatment” (June 30, 2009).
For those who have never been seriously ill, treatment often seems cut and dried. You get sick, you get treated and, in theory, you get better. One day you’re a patient, the next you’re not. Simple, right?
Well, sometimes it’s more complicated than that. As I was being treated for an aggressive prostate cancer this past year — surgery, hormone therapy, radiation — I experienced an unexpected side effect: post-treatment letdown.
It tended to arrive right as a cycle of treatment was ending. It snuggled up against its old friend uncertainty and whimpered, “So, what’s next?”
“So what’s next?” It’s a question similar to the one Mary Oliver asked: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Post-treatment letdown is familiar to many cancer survivors. Fears of recurrence are as common as the stresses of returning to “normal” life: dealing with others’ expectations, lists of “to dos,” and even unfinished projects left waiting for you. While so much appears the same, it’s not. You’ve changed because of cancer, and sometimes it can seem as if your friends or workplace colleagues do not truly understand all you’ve been through. The return to “normal” life can trigger feelings of sadness, anger or loneliness. Your body may be altered or scarred, and you discover you’re feeling like an adult re-experiencing pre-pubescent self-consciousness. You might even feel guilty if a friend or acquaintance dies from cancer, wondering how or why you were spared.
Search the internet for “life after cancer,” and you’ll find several resources, including Web MD, the Mayo Clinic, Britain’s National Health Service, and Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and the Canadian Cancer Society, among others. Each one describes similar feelings experienced by cancer survivors after treatment. Like those who attend my cancer writing groups, they admit feeling adrift, robbed of their clarity of purpose and comfort of the routine of care they experienced during their surgeries and treatments. As Dana Jennings described it, “Each day I arrived at radiation oncology, checked in, got my hospital bracelet, changed into a drafty gown, then waited with my fellow patients — my colleagues in cancer — to be treated. Once a week, my weight, blood pressure and temperature were taken and I met with my radiation oncologist. I had become a regular at the radiation spa, had even learned to artfully jiggle the key in the stubborn locker doors.
Then it was over.
Which is a good thing. But even though it was a relief to be done with the radiation, it still felt like getting fired or laid off.
It still felt like getting fired… Many years ago, I counseled executives who’d lost their jobs, and, they feared, their identities. We talked, at the time, about the concept of the “neutral zone,” a term William Bridges first introduced in his 1991 book, Managing Transitions, written in the early years of corporate downsizings. The “neutral zone” was the in-between time, a period of limbo and redefinition, and one that sometimes feels like there’s not much to hold on to. I resisted the term “neutral” as a descriptor for that in-between period—it was anything but neutral, full of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and even the “blues.” Yet the “limbo” period was also creative time, a chance to reflect and become clear about the purpose and intent in each person’s life from that point forward.
Ritual is comforting, but it can sometimes keep us tethered to the familiar. Post-treatment introduces uncertainty and unfamiliarity; but you have an opportunity to let go of the old and define a new purpose for your life however long you live, one informed by the knowledge of how suddenly and unexpectedly life can change Call it a “do-over,” as one of my writers did, or a second chance to live the kind of life you want as Rita Dove suggests in her poem, “Dawn Revisited,”
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance… Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens…
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page…
(From: On the Bus with Rosa Parks, 1999)
The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page. It’s a compelling image to consider. Think about it, how do you want to live after cancer treatment?
- Write about your “post-treatment” period. What got you through that time of adjustment?
- Have you re-discovered a new raison d’être? What is it? Write about the process of defining it.
- Answer Mary Oliver’s question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”
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.