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Writing Helps Me Stay Positive During Cancer


When I was undergoing cancer treatment, writing was a creative outlet that helped calm my nerves.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was assigned to write a paper on Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.” It was very clear that I used a thesaurus. You would think that after reading a beautifully written masterpiece that I would want to emulate the pure style of the author’s writing. Instead, my Buck was effervescent.

Buck “battled the bountiful rhythms of life while gracefully traversing a plethora of hills.”

It was more important to incorporate adjectives than it was to make sense. I can’t remember my grade. I’m not sure I ever really got to a point.

But finding words was fun.

When I was receiving a bone marrow transplant in the hospital during COVID-19, I needed creative outlets to detract from the pain and isolation. I scribbled constantly. My chronicles were all over the place. Sometimes I just wrote to improve my penmanship. Doing something creative calmed my nerves.

Paper is a great listener. It silently receives your thoughts and makes no judgment. It is clean and smooth and welcoming. It speaks back to you like a compassionate ghost, encouraging you to “tell me more.” The ink gives the paper breath. I’m in the paper!

I still have a little bit of that freshman-year brain.

I worried that sharing my fears with loved ones would take a toll on them. I believe that they wanted me to share anything and everything, but I felt that they would then want to remedy my problems. So, I held back. I felt bad when they felt helpless.

I purged and reemerged through journaling. Did my past bad behaviors cause the cancer? Was the cancer a penance for all my wrongs? What would I want to do if I only had a short time to live? Why did I feel OK about possibly dying?These are the types of things I wanted to explore without scaring anybody. Turned out I wanted to live.

I must insert here: My family members are excellent listeners. All four siblings have their own beautiful style when it comes to our heart-to-hearts. My mom will forever astonish me with her ability to understand and soothe without telling me what to do. That, my friends, is a precious thing.

But paper was always available, and it serenely accepted my mental messiness. I had 24/7 outlet for all this Marydrama!

Moffitt Cancer Center has a spectacular art room and other resources to help patients during their hospital stay. However, patients in the bone marrow transplant ward could not leave the unit due to their severely compromised immune system. Plus, it was COVID-19 time. I could not go and paint in the art room or meditate in the chapel. Chaplains and social workers were somewhat restricted from the unit. Nurses were willing to listen but were focused on their life-saving agendas. I would never trouble the doctors even though they always exhibited patience. Family could not visit. So, I primarily used the phone, the paint brush and the pen to explore and heal. I don’t think I ever watched the television.

If you’re in the hospital, try turning off the TV for a spell and doing something creative. It may help you, too.

When writing, anything goes. I would start by yelling through the pen. “I hate not being able to go outside!” This would turn into a list of all the things I missed by not sitting on the back patio in the morning. I would start writing about the birds and their songs. I would conjure a future trip to see the Birds of Paradise in New Guinea. I would expand my explorations to include seeing every kind of whale species in the wild. What route would I take? I wrote an itinerary. I researched hotels. I took copious notes on my whale education via Google.

I was hammered from AA and counselors to write gratitude lists. However, this became a repetitive exercise, and most entries needed caveats. I had bouts of misery and would write the expected “I’m grateful to be alive.” Was I really? There were moments when I wanted to check out. By journaling, rather than list writing, I could explore these thoughts and experience something restorative. Honesty prevailed:

“I am grateful to be alive so that my family is happy. I’m not sure if I, myself, am happy to be breathing through this seemingly never-ending fever, nausea, and diarrhea. But I am going to put my faith in you, God – that joy will prevail.

I wrote out dreams. I made up stories. I scolded myself and forgave myself.

My purple prose was powerful.

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