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When it Comes to Surviving Cancer, Words Matter


Writing down our thoughts is a novel idea.

I remember the very moment that I first discovered the power of the written word. When I was 12 years old my brother, who was in high school, came into our shared bedroom and told me about a school assignment he'd been given. He had been instructed to write a poem in the classic Japanese style known as a Haiku. I had never heard of that. But after looking at a few examples and understanding the format, I sat down and wrote one.

"That's cool," he said.

Months later I found out that he had submitted my little poem for his assignment and that his teacher had entered it in a national high school poetry contest. It won first prize in the Haiku category. Unbeknownst to me, I had written my first published piece of literature.

It was never that easy again.

By the way, my brother and I have kidded each other for years over that; exchanging the award certificate back and forth for various birthdays. Fast forward five decades. There is perhaps no more difficult theme to write about than health related issues. I'm not speaking of the peer-reviewed pieces authored by medical professionals; the meat and bones of modern-day therapeutic thinking that we read in technical journals. I'm referring to the first-person anecdotal stories that we read here in the CURE VOICES pages. These are the words of real people with a wide variety of thoughts and feelings. But these are also words that touch on the most vulnerable areas of life and death; the subjective experiences that allow us as cancer survivors to discover alternative ways of viewing our own life-threatening diseases.

Growing up I always loved writing but never considered it as a career. I wrote an advice column in my junior high school newspaper as "Dr. Popoff". I wrote regularly for my high school newspaper. As an adult I wrote a novel. It attracted a bit of interest from a major publishing house but never went beyond that. I started work on my second novel after my wife was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. It was an adventure story about four young kids who loved the art of magic. They formed a magic club to practice their skills, and along the way they met a remarkable old man by the name of Charlie Zeno. Charlie had been hired by the CIA to investigate a strange phenomenon in Kathmandu, Nepal where it was rumored that the people in a small Himalayan village had discovered the ability to levitate. The story follows their adventures trekking along the Annapurna trail in Nepal in search of the secret. I loved writing fiction and exploring characters that could speak to me and guide me through the pages and chapters of their own lives.

My wife's long cancer battle lasted several years, with chemotherapy, surgeries, clinical trials and all the ups and downs that cancer creates to leave us rattled and torn. I needed a place to go to for a bit of solace, and so I returned to the exercise of writing. I found rest in the words and story lines and every night I would read my days' worth of writing from my fantasy adventure novel out loud to my ailing wife. This became a moment in our day and in our lives that we looked forward to and found deep comfort in. It was good for both of us.

She died before I finished the story.

For the last 22 years my book has laid dormant. I've thought about it sometimes and remembered the characters who aided me in my struggle to reconcile my wife's illness. Periodically I've pulled up the file on my computer to read a few pages, but I've never been able to find the courage to return to that world of fantasy that I created and to continue the journey.

Today, as I remember those times, I feel a great deal of gratitude that my life as a cancer survivor has allowed me to reawaken my love of writing and of seeing, quite clearly, the immense power of the written word—not mine necessarily, but all of the words that express the thoughts and feelings from all the people who share their unique stories as we struggle to make sense of a world that includes disease. I spend a good deal of time reading and writing about cancer, and oddly, I find it both comforting and emboldening to share whatever shows up. The world of cancer is both a mystery and an adventure. It's a thriller of sorts.

The lesson I've learned is that your words matter. And they don't need to be in print to be effective. When you write them down, you release them. And once you let them go, they belong to the world—or at the very least, to the reader.

As I see it, every word written, uttered or thought is a contribution toward a very big book in the library of human evolution. And the thoughts we have about our cancer, good or bad, make each one of us a co-author in the undying story of survival.


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