Sharon Bray, Ed.D.
Our contributor for this issue is Sharon Bray, Ed.D. Sharon's specialty is in the healing power of writing, about which she has written two books: A Healing Journey: Writing Together Through Breast Cancer, and When Words Heal. Much of Sharon's inspiration for these books comes from the cancer survivors in the expressive writing groups she facilitates. In this column, Sharon writes of her own cancer journey and of the transformative capacity of expressive writing. For prompts to jumpstart your own writing, see Sharon's blog at www.writingthroughcancer.com.
Writing To Heal
"Hello Sharon," My doctor walked into the examination room, a file in his hand.
"Hi, Dr. C," I smiled. My eyes darted to the file and back to his face. I felt a flicker of unease. "So? What's the verdict?" I kept my voice light.
"It's cancerous," he said quietly. He opened the file and glanced at the contents. "Malignant."
"Cancerous?" How could it be cancerous? I forced myself to listen as he explained, trying to make sense of the jumble of terminology suddenly foreign to my ears. I clung to two words.
"Early stage. Non-invasive...but..."
"But?" I gripped the edge of my chair.
"We need to take care of it right away," he said. "Left alone, it's a bad act."
I nodded my head as though I understood. A bad act. He kept talking, his gaze unwavering, watching me for a reaction. I heard something about surgery. Something about bringing my husband in the next day to meet with him. I didn't care. I just wanted to get out of his office as quickly as I could.
It would take weeks after the surgery, multiple rounds of radiation and a series of follow-up appointments before the reality of cancer began to sink in. My husband and friends expressed concern, but I assured them I was doing fine. For a short time, I was. I soldiered on, buried myself in my job, and kept telling myself I was one of the lucky ones. My cancer was very treatable. The prognosis was good, unlike the cancers other people had, real cancers, the kind that were life threatening. I carried guilt around like a sodden backpack. What right did I have to claim myself as a cancer survivor? I was in denial, disbelieving and numb. I lost weight. I cried frequently for no apparent reason. A month into treatment, I abruptly quit my job and enrolled in an intensive week-long writing workshop.
Writing had always been my refuge throughout every difficult period of my life. Dozens of notebooks were packed in boxes in our garage, testimony to who I was, what I had experienced. Poems, stories, histrionic outpourings of emotion, quotations to remember, observations that seemed worth noting at the time-all evidence of my life, but everything I'd written was personal, and it was private.
I was nervous about the workshop. I'd be writing with a group of strangers. I'd be asked to share my work aloud. I would be exposed. I considered withdrawing, yet something pulled me toward it, and on the first day of class, I was relieved to find a gentle and encouraging instructor who created a safe and supportive space for writing.
"The knowledge you're ill," literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote, "is one of the momentous experiences of life." Momentous, yes, but even though cancer lay like a leaden weight in the pit of my stomach, I played it safe, writing poems and stories that revealed nothing about my illness to the rest of the class.
"Tell the truth," Maxine Hong Kingston told the veterans who came to her writing groups to unearth their painful experiences of war. My instructor offered similar advice. Be courageous. Write deeply and honestly. But I had no intention of taking that deep dive into the shadows of my soul. I assiduously skirted around my truth day after day. It wasn't until the final day that something shifted. The instructor passed around a straw basket, filled with narrow slips of paper, a single line of a poem typed on each. I closed my eyes, drew a random slip, and read. "The hospital corridor was dimly lit." My heart lurched. I fought the urge to discard the one I held and choose another in its place. Instead, I took a deep breath and opened my notebook. Write honestly. Before I knew it, words poured onto the page, images of the basement waiting room in the radiology department, the blank faces of other cancer patients, the persistent wave of fear when, each day, the technician signaled my turn had come. "Ms. Bray?" When our time was up, my hands were trembling. I had written several pages.
"Who would like to read what they've written?" The instructor asked.
I raised my hand. "I'll read," I said, and my cancer experience came out of hiding. I had begun my journey of healing. "We are all wounded," Larry Dossey, M.D., remarked, "and our process of healing is aided by telling our story."
Several months later, inspired by the research of James Pennebaker and my own experience, I began an expressive writing program for cancer survivors at a local nonprofit. I now realize that leading the first writing group-giving others the safety and support to share their cancer stories--was as fundamental to my recovery as I hoped it would be for those who participated. Cancer robs us of the lives we knew, but it can be, as many other survivors discover, a doorway to transformation, an opportunity to choose the life we want to lead.
"Decay is the beginning of all birth," Kat Duff wrote in The Alchemy of Illness. Arthur Frank, sociologist and author of At the Will of the Body, echoed a similar sentiment. Frank's memoir remains one of the richest reflections on illness I've read, and I return to it often. "Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you're regaining," he said. While cancer--or any other serious illness--changes us, perhaps it also "remodels us," as poet Jane Hirshfield has said, "for some new fate."
Writing and sharing our stories of cancer helps to repair the damage it does to our lives, our sense of who we are, the disrupted futures we face. We are our stories, and by bearing witness to our lives and witnessing one another's, we learn what makes us unique and what is most meaningful to us. Through the sharing of story, we remember who we were, and we learn who we are becoming. We begin to link our pasts to our futures, bear witness to the changes in our lives, and discover how we got from where we were to where we are now.
Sharing our stories does something else for us. Stories are the language of community. We find we are not alone, that suffering is part of the human condition, and in the act of sharing our stories with one another, we are telling the human story.
It's been nearly twelve years since I led my first expressive writing group. Little did I realize that I too, was being remodeled for "some new fate." The first writing group led to others, to two books, to a vocation, a calling I had never before experienced. That single word, "cancer," uttered in a doctor's office over twelve years ago, broke everything open. The person I was before cancer changed. Writing and sharing my stories was central to my recovery. It gave voice to my cancer experience. It helped me heal, and it was transformative. I discovered the person I was becoming, and that has made all the difference.
I hope you go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work with them...then you will see what medicine they make and where and when to apply them. This is the work. It is the only work. - C.P. Estes
Sharon Bray is the author of two books on the healing power of writing during cancer, A Healing Journey: Writing Together Through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal. She teaches creative nonfiction for UCLA extension's Writers' Program and leads regular writing groups at Scripps Green, UCSD Moores, and Stanford Cancer Centers. Sharon also leads an annual series for the Medical School at Stanford University, a writing workshop for faculty, medical students, and alumni. She authors the weekly blog, www.writingthroughcancer.com, which features writing prompts for anyone living with cancer. For more about Sharon, see www.sharonbray.net.