I learned I had breast cancer in May of 2003, after a routine mammogram. Surgery, chemo, and radiation altered me, but it wasn't until I was finished with treatment that I realized how much I had changed.
I finally had proof that life itself was terminal. I needed to decide what I wanted to do with the time I had left. I tried to return to my old career, but my job didn't fit me anymore.
I have been a closet writer since I was a teenager. Writing had gotten me through some tough times, but I never shared or talked about writing. It was my secret. After cancer, though, I took up my pen, turned off my self-critic, and went public as a writer. I took classes and met with other writers. I was lucky to have a few stories published.
But something was missing. Writing about my experience had been part of my recovery, so I began to wonder if maybe I could help others do it. What if I could develop a program to encourage and support cancer survivors to write about their experiences?
Cancer in So Many Words, a program to empower cancer survivors to use the written word to express themselves, was born. The first event, in September 2004, featured multimedia readings and performances.
Surviving cancer changes people in remarkable ways, and I've found that writing about the experience can be very healing and life-affirming. Science even backs this up: In October 2002, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published the results of a study conducted by the University of Kansas showing that writing during cancer treatment was beneficial and contributed to the healing process.
The hardest part for all of us is beginning: How do you start writing? In facilitating writing workshops with patients, survivors, and others -- and wrestling with my own writing demons -- I've learned a few things about how to begin:
Buy yourself a special journal. This is just for you; no one else will open it or read it unless you give them permission. I favor the Mead pressboard composition books and buy them by the dozen when they're on sale. Besides being cheap, they're readily available.
I can't rip out pages (easily) so I must keep everything I write. No self-editing is allowed, and everything I write is valid, even if it's a to-do list. Find a journal that you love to look at, touch, and open and, eventually, write in. What you write with matters, too (assuming you're not using a computer): I have a weakness for a certain fine-point Cross blue pen, now referred to as my "lucky" pen. Indulge yourself with the tools of the trade.
2. Wreck the First Page
A blank book is intimidating. All those pages to fill. So I always write a note to myself, a shopping list, or simply doodle on the first page, just to get it out the way. Now you can begin.
3. Throw Out the Idea of "Guidelines"
Turn off your internal editor. Mine is a nasty little fellow who sits on my left shoulder like a parrot and screeches into to my ear, "What do you think you're doing? You have nothing to say! Let's get some chocolate instead!" I mentally put him in his cage, fasten the door, and cover him with a soundproof cloth.
4. Just Start Writing
But about what? There are many prompts and exercises to help you get started. Here are a few: Write about a loss or a discovery that came with your cancer diagnosis. A loss or discovery can be physical, spiritual, emotional, humorous, sad, or bittersweet.
Try your hand at writing an unsent letter that you address to someone else. You might write to a loved one, a physician, your body, or even to cancer. Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written. What do you really want to say? (This advice comes from Sharon Bray at Wellspring Writers.)
Choose a subject and go from there: For instance, how has cancer changed how you feel about aging or birthdays? Or read a quote from another survivor and write something about what it means to you -- whether it resonates with your own experience. Or think about something that has nothing specifically to do with cancer, such as the first person or thing you loved.
For more inspiration, here's a short list of my favorite books about writing:
- Art.Rage.Us: Art and Writing by Women with Breast Cancer, by Terry Tempest Williams (epilogue), Jill Eikenberry (introduction)
- Becoming Whole: Writing Your Healing Story, by Linda Joy Myers
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
- Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond, by Marc Silver
- Dear Stranger, Dearest Friend: A Novel, by Laney K. Becker
- Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know, by Lori Hope
- Uplift: Secrets from the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors, by Barbara Delinsky
- Voices of Breast Cancer: The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength (Voices Of series), by The Healing Project
- When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer, by Sharon A. Bray
Marcie Beyatte is a writer and survivor in Orinda, California, and the founder of Cancer in So Many Words, whose mission is to empower cancer survivors to use the written word to express themselves. She worked in bookstores most of her adult life because she loved the smell of books. When she became a cancer survivor in 2003 she discovered she could no longer say, "One day I will." She learned to say, "Today I am." Marcie's essays and stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, as well as the Contra Costa Times, The Monthly, Today's Caregiver and VerbSap.