Photo by Jennifer Brown
In this issue of the Survivor's Review, we are honored to introduce our guest columnist, author and writing teacher Sandra Marinella, MA, MEd. Over the course of five years, Sandra interviewed more than a hundred individuals - veterans, cancer patients, writers, and students -- each of whom shared the stories they needed to tell, contributing to Sandra's understanding of the power of writing to transform our lives. In her book, The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss, she shares these stories and her own experience of using journaling and expressive writing to navigate challenges, including breast cancer and postpartum depression. Each of the techniques, prompts, and exercises she presents are designed to helps us "unravel the knot inside, make sense of loss, and find our path toward resilience and renewal."
The profits from Sandra's book support cancer research, and consistent with her generosity, when we asked her to share some of her story, insights, and prompts, with our readers, she did not hesitate. "We are in this together," she said. And indeed, we are.
The Story You Need to Tell--Writing to Heal from Illness
by Sandra Marinella
Our words create us. Our stories create us. And our writing can heal and re-create us.
After a year of treatment, my surgeon called to tell me that I was "done" with breast cancer. Then she asked me if I would meet with another patient, a young mother, who wanted to write her story for her child. In case.
"In case?" I asked stupidly, and then it hit. In case she died.
Two days later my cell phone rang. The connection was weak, and at first her words vibrated through my Bluetooth. I pulled forward into the drive-through, desperate for caffeine. "Cancer . . . stage four . . . I need to write," she said. "Jen." Her name was Jen. I scribbled it down on a Starbuck's napkin, along with a time and date for our meeting.
We met at Jen's place, a refurbished, ranch-styled home. An almost bald pixie, Jen charmed me as she fluttered about her kitchen heating green tea for us. In the coming weeks I would learn the story she needed to tell, and I would begin to write pieces of it - and encourage her to write as well. She had already embraced the idea in her own way.
Jen Campisano with her son, Quinn
Jen's story opens with the birth of Quinn. By now Quinn is nonstop energy, and you have to wonder how the petite Jen ever breastfed this bundle of boy. "But I did," she explained. "And I like to get A's on everything I do." She undertook breastfeeding as she undertakes life - with a can-do attitude. But when Quinn was only three months old, something odd happened. One day as Jen nursed, she found a hard lump on her right breast. She was troubled. She visited the doctor who had delivered Quinn, but he insisted it was nothing.
For a while Jen ignored it, but the lump expanded, growing quickly to the size of a large, hard walnut. Finally, she sought a second opinion from a doctor who said, "It is probably nothing - but if you want to check it out, I know a fine surgeon."
As soon as possible Jen visited the surgeon. After the examination, she was sent to another clinic to undergo immediate imaging. "They kept taking pictures, but I still didn't get it," explained Jen. "I thought they were going to find some weird cyst in there - with hair and teeth." She paused and we laughed. The radiologist just kept snapping pictures and finally she turned and said, "This looks like cancer." Jen froze.
Unfortunately, Jen's cancer had spread. The scan showed the disease inside her lungs and spleen, outside her liver, and in her chest wall.
"At first I couldn't even hear my diagnosis." Jen looked down. "Some people interpret stage four breast cancer as a death sentence. But I couldn't - I just couldn't."
Initially it can be hard to talk or write about cancer. It was for me, and I learned it was equally hard for Jen. To cope she decided to start a blog, www.boobyandthebeast.com. "This would give everyone the chance to keep updated on my illness without feeling they had to call me all the time. And I didn't want to just keep dumping my story out. I have wonderful friends and family, but they are too busy to check on me every day."
And Jen, who had to manage her surgeries and chemo while working full-time as a lawyer, was busy, too. The expressive blog writing allowed her to open up about her struggles while simultaneously keeping others informed.
"Looking back, I realized I needed help on many levels, and I found the writing was completely cathartic. It gave me a powerful and needed release - and I got a tremendous response to my blog. People kept asking if they could share it, and this inspired me to keep writing."
On her blog, Jen does not sugarcoat her experiences. Instead, she models how to write and even how to rewrite a painful life story. We can choose to succumb to or stand up to a chronic illness. Jen chose to stand up. She faced surgeries, radiation, chemo, insurance battles, and reoccurrences. And sometimes she wavered and cried, but she focused on those she loves, attended yoga, found her positive voice - and steadied herself with her words.
The average life span for a young woman with metastatic breast cancer is a little more than two years after diagnosis. For nearly four years, Jen and I attended chemo together. I became her "chemo buddy," and we were determined to face this challenge and hold tightly to hope. During the chemo sessions, we talked and often worked on our writing-and we agreed that our writing helped to sustain us. While I wrote my book, The Story You Need to Tell, on the power of writing to heal us, Jen built up quite a following for her blog and completed a draft of her memoir, The Fire Within. It chronicles her challenges in living with metastatic cancer.
Then everything changed. In the spring of 2016, Jen's oncologist released her from a regular chemo regimen. Her scans had become completely clear. This was followed by ongoing discussions with her physicians. Had she been misdiagnosed as stage four instead of stage three cancer? Had she been healed? While I am thrilled to share that Jen remains cancer free, we have learned she is a chronic sufferer of sarcoidosis, an immunological disease. And yes-the physical challenges continue to come, but Jen has embraced her new story and moved forward with her life. A few years ago, Jen and her husband felt they had to give up their dream of having a second child, but recently, Jen gave birth to her daughter, Noelle. Life does hold wonder, surprises, and even blessings amid the challenges.
Through it all, Jen continues to write her inspirational blog. While it has supported her journey, a blog, a very public form of writing, is not for everyone. Our illnesses or setbacks may need privacy - at least for a while. And that is one of the huge advantages of writing. It can be private - or not. We can find our voice by following our own path, and that is what I encourage all writers to do.
Often I do workshops or speak about writing our stories to help us heal, and sometimes Jen comes with me. Our friendship continues, and I am thrilled our work often intersects as we advocate for others who are facing illness. You can contact us at www.storyyoutell.com.
Jen Campisano and Sandra Marinella
celebrating the end of chemo!
Writing about Illness
In my work with cancer patients, I have discovered that certain qualities surface in successful writing about an illness. This kind of writing:
- Accepts our story and makes sense of it.
A story is, after all, a mirror of our psychological growth. We are peering into who we are and grounding ourselves as our story evolves. It is why I wrote out my cancer journey. To understand it. To make sense of it. And when I opened up, I found others who felt compelled to share their stories with me - as Jen did. This genuinely helped my healing and growth.
- Explores honest feelings.
Many well-known writers explore their honest feelings and painful experiences as they search to find themselves. Author Elizabeth Gilbert seemed to have all the hallmarks of success, with a husband, a country home, and a successful writing career - but she was miserable. After her divorce, she faced a crushing depression, and it was then she began her search for herself by writing Eat, Pray, Love. While her search seems far from over, her words resonate because they seem to be drilling down in an honest quest to find the truth. Her truth. And that is what we hope our words will give to us.
- Uses positive words to heal.
While it is important to share our stories, the way we write and talk about our illness matters, too. Remember, we control how we understand our illnesses. Certainly the words we use to interpret an illness impact how we face it. Jen viewed her stage four breast cancer as a challenge to be met - not as a death sentence. "In a support group I met a woman who repeatedly said, 'When I die' as if the moment were imminent," said Jen. "She also talked about 'my terminal disease.' This bothered me. . . "Unless a doctor tells me this darn disease is everywhere, then I am not going to view my illness as the end. I am going to keep living to the fullest," said Jen.
Even amid illness we should hold tight to our center and live our fullest life. Find your words. Let your writing support your journey.
All my best,
The Story You Need to Tell Project
These prompts focus on how writing can support us during an illness:
Exploring Your Truths
Choose one of these prompts, and freewrite for five minutes. If the topic takes off, stay with it until you reach a point of completion. If the writing seems stuck, choose another prompt. Revise it if needed:
- I have never talked about this
- I will find my way forward as I ...
- The hardest lie I ever told was ...
- The way it really was ...
- It is dangerous to ...
- I knew my challenge would be ...
- This story is hidden in a box in the back of my mind. It begins ...
Words That Heal
Choose a word associated with healing: hope, resilience, courage, endurance, patience, fortitude, tenacity, heroism, optimism, confidence, or strength. (Choose a word not on the list if you think if fits.) Write a brief character description of one person you know who mirrors this word in the way she lives. Now choose a word that you want to embrace more fully in your life. Start with a statement like this:
- I want to be more hopeful ...
- I want to be more patient ...
- I want to be more ...
Then write a brief character sketch looking into your future. Create a portrait of you as someone who is hopeful or patient or _____.
This article includes excerpts from the chapter "Writing to Heal from Illness or Injury," from Sandra Marinella's book: The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2017. Profits from this work support cancer research. You may request review copies or contact the author at Sandra@StoryYouTell.com or www.storyyoutell.com
To enter a drawing for a copy of Ms. Marinella's inspiring book, please submit your name, email address, and phone number below. Reader information will be used only to contact the winner and for a handful of Survivor's Review updates per year.
Previous contributions to the Write Now! column
- Sharon Bray, Ed.D.
- James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D.
- Louise DeSalvo
- Susan Zimmermann
- Barbara Abercrombie
- Natalie Goldberg
- Sharon Bray, Ed.D.
- Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D.
- Karen Jandorf
- Laurie Kingston
- Nancy Pierce Morgan
- Karin B. Miller
- Sara Baker
- Sharon Bray, Ed.D.
- Barbara Abercrombie
- Louise DeSalvo
- John Evans, MAT, MA, EdD
- Sandra Marinella, MA, MEd.