Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
Keeping a journal during cancer treatment is great for perspective. While it can give you insights into symptoms as well as a record of treatments and reactions, it can also give you documented proof of how strong you can be, even years later.
One winter day, the other day, I was sick with fever. Nothing would distract me from self-pity - not the birds I watched outside my window, not the newspapers I subscribe to, not even Netflix. Snow started to fall. "Is this it?" I asked myself. "Have I, a cancer survivor, forgotten how to weather a virus?"
Cancer teaches us a lot of things. Sometimes I have to reflect on its lessons to remember that I am stronger than I think. That is what I finally did, late in the afternoon, after my spell of self-pity. I pulled out some journals from my year of cancer treatment. I wanted a reminder that I could weather even an ordinary malady.
The first journal entry that caught my eye in the midst of notes, so many notes, was dated Nov. 24, 2010: "CT scan, bone scan, call from dr., 5:30 visit to ER-crying, crying-collapsed lung-that's why it hurt." What a day! The scans were routine baseline scans, the pneumothorax identified coincidentally an uncommon side effect of port placement a week earlier. Time passed. My lung puffed back up.
February 2011 gave me a challenging week, a journal revealed. Feb. 14, I wrote, "Mama has MRSA-I need to wear mask, etc. Good chemo-feel a little bad." As my mother's caregiver, I had spent the previous Saturday evening at the ER with her, after she was transported from her nursing home and admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and other health issues that happen late in Alzheimer's disease.
I wore a mask in the hospital, even that night in the ER, but it was the height of flu season. I got sick, despite the flu vaccine. By Feb. 16, I would write, "Sick, fever, read some Chinese wilderness poetry. Can't walk down to get sheets. I feel awful. Hard to move. Nobody to pick me up." I got through that week. Surely, I could get through this one, I reminded myself, taking another look at the birds at the feeders.
There were positive affirmations in the journals, too. For example, my mother entered hospice care after that visit to the hospital. On Feb. 20, I wrote, quoting the Bible, "There is a peace that surpasses understanding." The next day, I had the energy to go down into the basement to get my sheets. In a list of things that I was proud of accomplishing on Feb. 21, 2011, I wrote, "Finally made my bed!"
Life is full of health challenges, with or without cancer. Reading about some challenges, and a few positive steps I made in the midst of them, perked me up. I needed to be reminded just what I am capable of. Next time I think that I will let a virus or fever get me down, I will remember how I survived cancer, cancer treatment and a bout of self-pity.
A journal can help through cancer treatment and beyond. If you are not journaling yet, it is never too late to start writing.