What do a group of creative, accomplished women have to say about their experiences with cancer? Does being an author, an illustrator, a TV star, an athlete, a fashion designer or a top business executive create a unique perspective on what, for many who encounter it, turns out to be life’s greatest struggle?
Look for the differences and commonalities in the essays that comprise “25 Women Who Survived Cancer.” These stories of hope are penned by survivors including newscasters Robin Roberts and Joan Lunden, actresses Patti LuPone and Fran Drescher, authors Alice Hoffman and Barbara Delinsky, and many others.
Read More: CANCER AND HOW WILL YOU DEAL WITH IT?
Heartfelt and simply written, the essays are each just a few pages long and don’t need to be digested in any particular order — convenient for readers who are sitting in chemotherapy infusion chairs or are just too distracted by their illness and treatments to focus on complex material. The pieces offer a nice mix of advice, personal anecdotes, humor and insights into how to thrive and find inspiration through a lifechanging illness.
“Each personal essay in the book strikes a memorable chord,” writes Mark Evan Chimsky, the book’s editor, in an introduction. “Among them are: Barbara Musser at a clothing-optional ‘Love, Intimacy and Sexuality’ workshop after healing from cancer surgery, standing naked and vulnerable in front of everyone in attendance, and feeling the waves of love and acceptance; Caryn Hartglass seeing the cosmic connection between a famous painting and her own cancer experience; (and) Marissa Jaret Winokur writing of how she wouldn’t let her radical hysterectomy stand in the way of her dream of becoming a mom.”
In her essay, Hoffman relates a fulfilling outcome of her cancer experience: her choice to become a fundraiser for breast cancer research.
“When you help others, your troubles aren’t as heavy,” she writes. “In fact, you can hold them like a handkerchief and place them in your pocket. They’re still there, but they’re not the only thing you carry.”
WHEN 39-YEAR-OLD STEVEN RICK was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma earlier this year, he decided to “go public” with his diagnosis on Facebook. While the outpouring of love and support was bolstering, Rick says, it was also overwhelming.
“As an educator and coach, I had 16 years of relationships that all came back to me in an instant,” he says. “Despite my best attempts to keep up with private messages, I didn’t have the time or energy to individualize my responses to people that genuinely cared about me.”
Thus, Steven’s blog, Declaring War on Metastatic Melanoma, was born.
One of the most difficult aspects of navigating a cancer diagnosis is learning how to manage your time. Cancer is a full-time job. When you add a “cancer to-do list” to your pre-existing “just plain life to-do list,” every minute counts and is accounted for. Whether you tell your inner circle of friends and family or the whole of your social media community, once you’ve shared your diagnosis, the onslaught of messages commences.
This is a good thing, as the support of friends and family is critical for someone living with cancer. However, the very last thing a patient with cancer wants to do after a long day of scans or radiation, or if in the throes of chemotherapy side effects, is answer 20 messages or have 20 different versions of the same conversation. Communicating about your cancer properly is not only time consuming, but is emotionally exhausting, especially on days when the news isn’t good.
Through blogging, Rick has found, “I’m much more in control of when, how and why I update people on my journey. I was receiving text messages and Facebook posts daily …‘How are you feeling today? How did your appointment go? Are you having any side effects?’ Those requests have subsided since I started my blog … most people just wait for a new post and have respected the fact that I may only update my blog once a week.”
Keeping people updated is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a blog’s benefit. In fact, maintaining a blog can have a profound effect on the dialogue between a patient and the individuals in his or her support system. When people have cancer, it is the tendency of those around them to make all conversation about “the cancer.” This deprives the person living with the illness of the chance to have normal conversations. If caregivers or close friends have already read the latest blog post to answer their questions and alleviate some of their concerns, their loved one can have the opportunity to not talk about cancer for a change. Or, perhaps even more importantly, the door will be open for discussion of the illness on a deeper level.
SEEKING A CONNECTION
Rick is far from alone in blogging about his cancer.
Many of those who attend workshops through Visible Ink, a writing program that is free of charge to patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, maintain blogs, says Judith Kelman, the novelist and journalist who founded the group in 2008. “Blogging can be interactive without being overwhelming,” Kelman says.
Kelman learned the importance of communicating about illness at an early age.
“When I was 17, my good friend Stephen went off to his freshman year in college. Before Thanksgiving, he came home, not feeling well. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Eventually, they recommended exploratory surgery. He became sicker and sicker, but no one would discuss his illness. No one would use the word “cancer.” It has always troubled me deeply that my friend was denied the comfort of talking about what he was going through.”
This past April, Visible Ink hosted its first blogging workshop. The turnout was a reflection of a growing phenomenon.
“We had space for 25 and 25 came,” Kelman said. “People are eager to share their stories, and that’s a good thing. My friend, Stephen, was muted — his story was never told. There was shame and stigma and silence, and that’s not good. The more people blog, the more comfortable society is with the things that people are afraid of. In this, a blog can become part of the larger conversation.”