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Border Crossings: Traveling the Country of Cancer

Power of Words

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.





Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)


I booked a ticket to Toronto yesterday, a trip I’ll be taking later in April, crossing the U.S.-Canadian border as I have done so many times in my life.  I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never quite rid myself of the timidity that suddenly surfaces when it’s my turn to step up to the customs official’s booth.
“Passport please.” These are familiar words I’ve heard many times, yet I suddenly like an obedient first grader.  Customs officials are sometimes welcoming and smile back at me.  Other times, depending on which country I’m entering, I’m met with a stony face.  Welcoming or not, I smile and hand over my passport.
“Reason for your visit?” I offer another smile, silently thanking the fact that I have gray hair and no doubt seen as a senior citizen, as someone’s aging mother, which I am.


“I’m here to visit my daughter and her family.  Thwack.  Thwack.  My passport is stamped, and I’m approved for entry.


Despite having traveled far and frequently for much of my life, I leave the terminal in the haze of long distance travel.  Canada became my home for nearly 25 years, but I still recall the unexpected culture shock when I first arrived as a twenty something.  It took time to find my footing, and even then, there were challenges along the way.  In the years since,  I’ve traveled to many countries where I’ve been caught off guard by the slap of culture shock in the moments—even days–after arrival when everything is unfamiliar, even overwhelming.  Once again, I must remind myself that it takes time to settle into and navigate the new and unfamiliar surroundings.


Traveling to another country is an apt metaphor for the moment you’re given a diagnosis of cancer–or any serious illness.   The abrupt shift from your familiar life to an unfamiliar one is unexpected, abrupt and thrust upon you with little warning.  It is like crossing the border into foreign territory, the “kingdom of the sick.”


The words, “you have cancer,” are like being given a ticket to a destination you never wanted to travel, and one you cannot refuse.  It’s an unfamiliar and forbidding place; you’re forced to bid farewell to the life you took for granted, and yet you don’t know what lies ahead.  The terrain is unfamiliar, barely discernable and full of obstacles.  Even the language of those who inhabit this place is strange and confusing. You may feel more alone than you’ve ever felt before, like traveling solo without a clear roadmap or the guidance of an interpreter. This is the landscape of the body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is a constant companion.


There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border.  That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends.  Your body becomes enemy territory  (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).


Soon enough, you’re given a roadmap, a plan of sorts, but it includes a maze of choices you must make, ones that branch into multiple and equally confusing pathways.  All the while, there’s strange sounding terminology to decipher — colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your medical team increasing your feelings of confusion and bewilderment.  This is a new reality you did not ask for nor that you want to inhabit.


Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refundable ticket.  You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all and learn it quickly.  Your life may well depend on it.


Yet along the way, you find glimmers of hope, most often found with your fellow travelers, who, like you, are struggling to make sense of this foreign and foreboding landscape.


Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been  plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself:  One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).      


You become a seasoned traveler in time, helped by the love and support of those close to you and in the shared journey you travel with other survivors.  You feel less alone and together, you discover comfort in the sharing of fears and hopes, making this arduous journey seem more manageable.  Your courage is nascent at first, but grows stronger each time you are granted a reprieve, welcome words after your latest round of tests:  “Your cancer markers have gone down.” “No evidence of cancer at this time.”


There are no guarantees, of course, because life doesn’t give us those.  But as authors Gary Reisfield and George Wilson describe the cancer journey, the metaphor of travel, it offers:


possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change… The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly.the journey… may ultimately imbue them … with a vision of a deeper meaning in life. (J. of Clinical Oncology, October, 2004)


Traveling through the country of cancer has no guarantees and no clear destination for some.  And yet, journey through it, we must, and from it, we have the chance to learn about ourselves, life, and the resilience and courage that, before we set out on this journey, we didn’t know we had.  As one cancer survivor wrote,


…I will never be the same

knowing how effortlessly death

rests in the cells of my body,

yet with each step I am willing

to say yes to the chances I take,

to the hope no one can take from me

here in the midst of my recovery

now that I’ve seen what can thrive

in the bankrupt landscape of the heart.


(From:  “Hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert After Surgery,” by Francine Sterle, The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)


Writing Suggestion: 

Try using the metaphor of travel or a border crossing to describe your cancer experience.  What was it like to enter the unknown territory of cancer?  What changed as you traveled “the kingdom of the sick?”  What old assumptions did you leave behind?  How did your relationship with your body change?  What was most helpful to you along the way?”




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.



SharonBraySmallSharon 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,, 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.



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