When diagnosed with breast cancer in January, 2006, Laurie Kingston, of Ottawa, Canada started a blog called Not Just About Cancer (http://notjustaboutcancer.blogspot.com). She initially used the blog to help manage the news about her diagnosis and to process her feelings. However, her blog very quickly became an outlet for creativity, a means of communication and a life-line to other women around the world who were also coping with breast cancer. Laurie has graciously agreed to share her inspiring story and some of her favorite writing prompts with readers of the Survivor's Review.
In November 2006, ten months after my initial diagnosis, I learned that my cancer had become metastatic. I was told that my liver had "more tumours than they could count" and that I had "years, not decades" to live. I was 39 years old and had two young children. I was devastated. My response to treatment, however, was "spectacular" (in the words of my oncologist) and in June 2007, I had my first completely clean scan. Two years later, there is still no evidence of cancer in my body. I will very likely be in treatment for the rest of my life but my prognosis has greatly improved. I am feeling very hopeful about the future.
Throughout my experience as a cancer patient, I have continued to write. I write my blog. I keep a private journal. In March, 2009, I published a book based on my blog, called Not Done Yet: Living Through Breast Cancer (Women's Press). I still write almost every day and have also begun to write fiction.
I believe that anyone can benefit from writing. The act of writing, whether for personal or public consumption, is therapeutic and potentially transformative. Writing can help us to process our feelings and life's events. The creative aspects of writing can provide a sense of purpose and renewal, even an affirmation of life. And when cancer survivors share our writing, we can create a profound connection with one another.
For the last two years, I have been a member of a writing group comprised of seven women who once worked in the same building. We have all had breast cancer within the last several years. For the first year, we gathered to support each other and to talk about our writing, but the real breakthrough occurred when we began to write together. We now take turns facilitating the group, with the use of writing prompts and exercises mined from a range of resources. Because of our shared experience, there is a real feeling of trust between us. Each of us has grown as a writer and gained a deeper understanding of ourselves as survivors.
Below are a few of my favourite prompts that I have borrowed from great writers or learned from friends.
- Just write. Set a timer for twenty minutes. Or ten. Or five. Start writing and don't stop until the timer does. Write down every thought that goes through your brain. What this generally means for me is that I write a lot of things like "The dog is snoring on the couch. Need to get dog food. This house is a mess." But sometimes I am rewarded with something that I really like or that I find very inspiring. The first time you do this exercise, it feels really hard. It gets easier, I promise.
- Pick a memory from childhood and write down everything you can remember. How old were you? What were you wearing? Who else was there? What was the weather like? How did you feel? Without editing or stopping to organize your thoughts, describe everything and everyone in as much detail as possible.
- Pick an object that, for whatever reason, is important to you. Describe it in detail. If you want to write about your experience with cancer it can be an object related to that. In my writing group, one of my friends brought in an egg carton she had used to organize all the medicine she had to take when she was in chemo. I wrote about a necklace that I have that says "Rebel" on it that reminds me I am more than my cancer. Write what the object is for and why it is important to you. Don't censor yourself. Sentence fragments are OK.
- This is my favourite group exercise. Sit in a circle. Every person has a piece of paper and a pen. Each person writes a sentence at the top of the page about anything at all and passes the paper to the person on the left. Each participant then writes a second sentence on the page they have been handed and then passes it to the left. This process is repeated until each person is holding the page with which they started. The stories are then shared aloud. I've done this with my 11 year old son (we passed the paper back and forth several times) and with groups of several people. The results are always interesting. The key is not to think too much - just write down whatever comes to mind based on what the previous person has written.
Regular writing is especially helpful to women who have completed treatment or to women like me whose health has stabilized but who still face a life-time of treatment. Many of us find that, after the initial diagnosis, we are surrounded by friends and family who want to help and support us. When the crisis is over, we are expected to go back to living as we did before. For most of us, though, there is no such thing as returning to normal and we realize that we have been changed irrevocably. Writing helps many women cope with this struggle, and having a creative outlet can help restore hope and energy.
I now know that I will always be a cancer patient, but that means something different to me than it once did. And the cancer itself and the process of writing about it have exposed me to facets of myself that I didn't know existed.
I believe that writing and creative expression can break down isolation and give strength and confidence. I know that the more I write, the stronger, healthier and more confident I feel. I am passionate about the benefits of writing for people struggling with cancer and I welcome every opportunity to share this passion with others.
I will never say that cancer is a gift. But my life as a cancer patient has been full of many wonderful opportunities and simple, joyful experiences as well as some very tough times. I have been grateful to be able to write about it.