Writing can be healing. That’s the big idea behind this spring’s six part Writing the Journey series to be held at the Cherry Hill (NJ) Public Library beginning March 11th and registration is now open! The group will be facilitated by Alysa Cummings, breast cancer survivor and author of Greetings from CancerLand which can be purchased on Amazon.
Here she shares an excerpt from her book:
I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.
-Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
If you’re a cancer survivor like me, you just might be as guilty of it as I once was.
Guilty of magical thinking, that is.
I remember the first time it happened to me; I had been in CancerLand for a few weeks. The initial shock of the words I’m sorry, you have cancer had started wearing off, but ever so slightly. (Trust me on that one).
Slowly but surely I was taking baby steps toward my post-diagnosis “new normal.” Case in point: I could actually carry on a civil conversation with someone without crying my eyes out. This was no small feat. And let the record show that I was eating and sleeping normally again, showing up for work every morning and paying my bills on time. All things considered, we’re talking fairly high-functional here! At least, that was my goal.
But beneath the carefully constructed I-don’t need-any-help, I’ve-got-everything-under-control façade, I was such a mess. Not in my right mind at all – obsessing over details, crafting lengthy to-do lists, torturing myself with questions that had no simple answers. My most disturbing feelings, (who can possibly understand what I’m going through?) found a home in the privacy of my journal:
I have cancer?
No, that’s just not possible!
Could the lab have made a terrible mistake?
Disturbing indeed. While “Good Patient Me” was busy getting to doctors’ appointments on time, taking careful notes and undergoing pre-op tests, one after another, “The Real Me” wasn’t completely convinced. My thoughts were twisted and tangled around medical conspiracy theories – wondering if my biopsy slides had been misread, speculating that my file had somehow been switched with somebody else’s.
The reality of my medical condition was crazy making. I couldn’t conceive of the words cancer and me even being in the same sentence. How could I possibly make sense of some freaky new reality that involved cancer cells madly multiplying in my right breast and migrating to lymph nodes in my armpit?
The short answer is this: I couldn’t. Not right away. So I found a way to cope. Call it magical thinking, because that’s exactly what it was.
Along with stage two breast cancer, I was suffering from a major case of magical thinking. Denial, delusion and low trust levels blended well with anger of the “why me?” variety. And the magic lingered (could the lab have made a terrible mistake?) until I was good and ready to step up to my reality, as harsh as it was.
The day I got a mastectomy I insisted on walking the hospital hallways, every hour on the hour. Here’s my journal entry from that day, that painful moment in time that I tried to distance myself from, by writing in the third person – I was an unnamed ‘she’:
She walks. Past the nurse’s station, the elevator and the family TV room. She walks the fourth floor, pushing the IV pole with her left arm, a miniature pillow clutched against her bandaged right side. She walks. Past her room. Past the open doorways of the other patients. Around again. Another circuit. Moving one foot in front of the other. Walking hurts less than lying down. Feels more productive anyway. Incredibly lifelike. Walking feels like healing. Upright. Moving forward. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other. She walks. Five hours out of surgery and she’s upright and clocking indoor hospital miles. What must the other cancer patients in their beds be thinking as they glance away from their TV sets momentarily and see this lady with a denim hat on her mostly bald head walking so slowly, so tentatively, around and around the fourth floor, over and over again? Hey, she’s not so sick, that lady doing all that walking, they must be thinking. Look at her. She’s okay. She’s walking…
Magical thinking. Not a bad choice, actually. Quite an appealing alternative in fact, when confronting the challenges of surgery, toxic drugs and painful treatments, don’t you think? (Which door would you open?) Yes, during the most trying times in CancerLand, magical thinking has much to recommend it.
Maybe it’s part of the process of hanging onto who we are when cancer threatens to take our identities away. Maybe it’s a deep-seated wish for normalcy – that healthy time, before cancer, when we were whole, when we had all of our parts, (they were disease-free and all worked just fine, thank you very much). Maybe it’s an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Maybe it’s a short course called Coping in CancerLand 101. Maybe it’s all that and more.
All this thinking about magical thinking reminds me of a toy I bought years ago at the neighborhood Dollar Store; in fact, it’s sitting on the top shelf of my desk; I can see it as I type these words on my laptop.
It’s a magic wand – clear plastic, about twelve inches long with a shiny star at the top – the ultimate accessory for a little girl dressing up like a princess. Or relic for a middle-aged breast cancer survivor. The magic wand sits on the shelf over my desk and day after day reminds me of the power of magical thinking to get cancer survivors through crisis to a healing place. (when it comes to symbols, a magic wand just works for me). But, you know what? When it comes to CancerLand, I’ll take whatever kind of magic I can get my hands on.
For more information about Writing the Journey or to register visit the LBBC event page.