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Louise DeSalvo
Photo Courtesy of Deja Vue

We are honored to publish a second column generously contributed by writer, editor, and educator Louise DeSalvo. Professor DeSalvo's inspiring book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stories Transforms our Lives, is based on twenty years of research into the healing power of writing. Her most recent book The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, examines the benefits of writing slowly. DeSalvo advises her readers to explore their creative process on deeper levels by getting to know themselves and their stories more fully over a longer period of time.

Below Professor DeSalvo shares an entry from her own journal in which she calls upon much of what she has spent her life studying, writing, and teaching.

Cancer Journal

by Louise DeSalvo

When, in the autumn of 2011, I received a breast cancer diagnosis, I pulled Audre Lorde's Cancer Journal and Mary Cappello's Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life off my bookshelf to read. I wanted sturdy guides to help me through this difficult time. But both books impelled me to begin writing my own private account. And so I took the advice I gave to others in the "Writing the Wounded Body" chapter of Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives and began my own cancer journal. I decided to do this not only because I'm a writer and writing is how I process experience, but also because James W. Pennebaker's Opening Up has described that people with difficult medical challenges do better if they write about their experience.

I decided to write every day for twenty minutes if I could. I knew there would be hard times ahead-just how hard I, of course, couldn't possibly imagine-but I realized I needed a place to describe what I was going through. Yes, I could count on family and friends to listen. But I suspected there would be a limit to what they could hear because of their own lives and needs-my husband, for example, would be working hard to keep our household afloat, to take care of me, to ferry me to and from procedures, to act as my patient advocate, to recover from an injury he'd suffered. And so I needed that place where I could "say" whatever I wanted without wondering about how it would be received.

I decided that I'd describe, in detail, what was happening to my body. I suspected I might try to deny or ignore my body-like other people with cancer, I felt it had betrayed me-but I knew that writing an embodied prose would permit me to be present with my experience, difficult or painful though it might be. A part of me wanted this experience to be over with-with luck I would survive and get to the other side of treatment. But my wiser self realized that these days, these moments were as precious as my so-called normal days and that this, now, was my life.

I used James W. Pennebaker's model for my cancer journal: describe events; describe how you feel about events; and then step back and reflect upon what you've written and write what you've learned. I didn't just "vent," though there were days when I wanted to, because I'd learned from Pennebaker that this kind of writing hinders rather than helps. I tried to be as specific as possible; to describe good times as well as difficult times.

Here's an excerpt:

Sunday, September 25, 2011, Night Before Operation

I have been hydrating all day. Took my shower with the special soap-another tomorrow morning. Shave my legs-as if I'm off to a vacation. In fact the countdown has felt like that-get appropriate clothes; organize medications; deal with last minute work; clean and deal with body; get reading material; write down timetable.

I am so ready for this. We've waited two weeks for this operation and I know it would have been easier on me emotionally if it had occurred earlier. But there were all the tests to be taken-the biopsy, the MRI, the doctor certification, the chest x-ray, the meeting with the surgeon, the reconstruction surgeon (twice), his assistant, the anesthesiologist, the money person, the meds to be gotten. A very big deal of preparation.

Perhaps I've grown into this emotionally during this time. I've moved into and out of mourning-that feeling you get when you're tireder than the occasion warrants. It came upon me today after my body scan and I almost didn't go to Jay and Deb's [my son and daughter-in-law's] but it was so divine to see the family and the made the most lovely simple pasta and red sauce for us with a salad.

I won't be eating until tomorrow night at the earliest.

Tonight, I will take the time to say good-bye to my breast as it is now. I will make something of a ritual of it-as I did when I had my leg operated on-and it helped then and I hope it helps now.

So how do I feel about this? Numb. Then sad. Then normal or as close to normal as I can be. Then I forget about it. Then, blast, I remember. Do I worry? I can't go there. I have been through the meditation sequences for preparing for surgery every day, writing in here, and I think they have all helped me through this very difficult time . . ..

I am looking forward to beginning the long process of healing. I intend to be in the present during the process, to try not to suck up all the air in the room, to be a good partner, to resume the things I love when it's prudent, and from the first I can look at movies, read, I hope, knit, I hope.

Years ago, when I'd read Anthony Robbins Awaken the Power Within, I'd started describing, at the end of many of my journal entries, answers to one or several of the following: what I was happy about, excited about, proud of, grateful for, enjoying most, committed to, loving; what I had given, learned, added to the quality of my life; accomplished; and what I was looking forward to. These questions became powerful tools when, at the end of a day of chemotherapy, I forced myself to write about, say, what I'd enjoyed most-the roast beef and potato salad sandwich on an onion roll that my husband routinely bought us to eat during my chemotherapy sessions. And so I learned that there were moments in these difficult days that I could, in fact, enjoy.

After I got cancer, I realized that there is no one way to "do" cancer, no right way to deal with it. And so in talking about how I used my "cancer journal," I am not suggesting that every other person with cancer "should" do what I did: we each have to find our own way. But I will say this: I know that keeping this journal got me through the most terrifying time in my own life.

Previous contributions to the Write Now! column