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The Cancer Credential


Cancer can give writers a special edge.

As well as writing for curetody.com, I teach online creative writing at a writing school in New York City. Most of my co-teachers have published several books. But while they were writing novels and memoirs, I was dealing with two bouts of cancer. I do have one book out there, my master's thesis, First Aid and Other Stories, that was digitally published by Iowa State University. But to me, this doesn't really count.

Because I don't have big, blockbuster publications, you'd think that students wouldn't want to study writing with me. But I draw students.


I have many publications in journals and magazines and on websites. This brings students to my door. But there's something else.

I have the cancer credential. Students who have either had cancer or family members who have had cancer are drawn to me as a teacher because I understand what it's like to experience this disease. In fact, students write to tell me that they picked me as an instructor because of my cancer background. I think they are struck by the fact that not only did I have cancer, but I survived.

I think they see me as someone with grit and resilience. But in reality, I believe it was God's will that I survived. Whole churches prayed for me. My husband and my brother chanted the "Our Father" out loud all during my surgeries. My mother prayed the rosary all night long. I don't discount this.

Looking back, I also learned that surviving cancer brings new knowledge. In my case, it's knowing what it's like to sit in a chemo chair all day long. It's going wig shopping and picking out a completely differently style than my real hair. It's enduring a thoughtless radiation technician who remarked when my radiation treatments were over, "Now you're nice and crispy." It's is living with drainage bulbs dangling from your chest. It's counting backwards from 10 when they put you out. It's every second, minute, hour, day and year that screams "cancer" when you're sick. It's hearing that the cancer surgeon got all the cancer.

Yes, folks, I have the cancer credential. If it doesn't kill you, it's very useful — impressive, in fact. This credential helps me understand human misfortune and triumph, which are the building blocks of literature.

Cancer teaches humility and compassion, which are useful to a writer. With a humble touch, the writer does not exploit her subject matter, but can describe it truthfully and clearly. And if I ever do publish blockbusters, the fame won't go to my head.

If nothing else, cancer gives a person material to write about.

I guess people with true experience about life struggles are helpful to other people. Just this week, a student reached out to me to tell me that she'd been waiting to sign up for my class because a relative of hers had cancer.

The cancer credential comes in handy.

But it's expensive. It almost cost me my life.

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