They hurt. They weep. They fly. They soar above the thunderheads. They plunge back to earth. They hold fast to their lovers and their children. They bruise. They burn. They heal.
Cancer is not a single disease. It’s a giant category of illness, spanning hundreds, even thousands of conditions. Every case is different and every patient is different, which creates a fog of anxiety about the outcome. Some of these patients know the odds are in their favor, and some know the odds are stacked against them. All have stories to share.
Book Review: We become a new story: Writing from women, men & young adults healing from cancer. Edited by Dawn Thompson and Ash Good. OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, 2023.
Together, the 48 patients in this collection explore vast dimensions of illness, treatment and recovery. They write about the slow drip of chemo and the tattoos of radiation and the scars of surgery. But they go much further and much deeper. They write about how cancer has changed them, forced them to adapt and reinvent. When it robs them of their energy, somehow they find strength. When it robs them of their time, somehow they find wisdom.
These pieces arose from OHSU writing groups founded almost 20 years ago by breast cancer researcher SuEllen Pommier, Ph.D. Pommier started the first group after realizing that most cancer patients left the hospital with a solid plan for medical care but no idea how to navigate the complex emotional journey ahead. “Storytelling came to mind,” she writes in the introduction. The groups now operate at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and the OHSU Center for Women’s Health.
Guided by social work expert Susan Hedlund, M.S.W., and writing facilitators Dawn Thompson and Ryan Voelker, the groups have helped more than a hundred patients to make sense of their stories and to articulate the powerful emotions that cancer provokes. The writing becomes a type of therapy, a way of grappling with the psychic landscape they now inhabit.
“Welcome to Canceristan,” Amy Moore Paterson writes. “Leave your I.D. at the door.”
Writing about cancer proved a powerful experience for these authors. “This group has saved my life,” one participant says. “Writing group is far more than a support group,” another writes. “It’s the highlight of my week.”
No matter how cathartic it is for patients, writing-as-therapy can be a perilous genre for readers. This book is all the more remarkable, then, for its raw power and searing insights. The writers strip away the polite clichés we sometimes use to varnish the experience of cancer. Instead they offer something hard and real: pain, fear, hope and defiance.
For starters, take the awkward platitudes of well-meaning friends, like God never gives you more than you can handle. “Really?” Louise Smith writes. “God gave me ovarian cancer? To prove what? That I can handle it? Not the God of MY understanding. My God says to me, cherish each moment, each encounter, look to the truth, the beauty in these encounters. Walk your own path.”
“You do not get to define my doorways or my gateways or my life lessons,” Cynthia Speckman writes. “You do not get to put my cancer, my rebellious teenager cells, in a little box of niceties so you can make sense of your world.”
Several pieces sound the theme of perseverance, born of enduring rigorous surgery or successive rounds of chemo. “Resilience is made up of half memory and half amnesia,” Alpen Sheth writes. “My scar is my medal of valor,” Juliana Person writes.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of humor here. Caralynn Hampson describes mixing up a cocktail that tastes like Nystatin, an antifungal mouthwash, to celebrate her 21st birthday. Marty Crouch depicts cancer as a greedy developer who wants to put up a strip mall in his chest. Sally Foster Rudolph jokes about the crows who pelt her windshield with their droppings during a two-week sojourn in the hospital parking lot.
Sometimes the writing takes the form of a wish, a plea, or even a prayer. “My scarred body, I have a prayer for you, a mother’s plea,” Elena Wiesenthal implores. “Keep me as your passenger for as long as I can be contained.”
In a similar vein, Mary Ellen Boles writes a moving incantation for her grandmother. “Your DNA drives mine, as mine will continue to drive those who come after,” she writes. “Walk with me, hold my hand. Steady my step when I falter. Strengthen my gait when it grows weak. Whisper in my ear as a remembrance I am not alone.”
Many writers focus on the unexpected discoveries that come with the slower pace that the disease has imposed on them. Stephanie Balik writes:
The sweet taste of fresh strawberries,
Contrasted with the tartness of rhubarb;
The combination that reminds me of home…
I have had to focus on the future for so long:
Cancer strangely is allowing me to slow down,
Persuading me to live.
These authors have learned not to rush, but they have also learned not to wait. “Cancer has given me a razor focus on my life,” Kelly Everett writes.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about this book was the birds. Ravens, crows, chickadees, gulls and swallows wheel and soar through these pages. Even the cover of the book, a quilt created by Marti Price Morton, depicts a hummingbird. The birds in this book seem to belong to the world of cancer, even if they are not quite part of it. Flying with a freedom we can only dream of, they play many roles here: tricksters, therapists, witnesses and messengers.
At the water’s edge
Come with me to the boundary
Here at the water’s edge
Peer out into the ocean
Look down at the riverbed
Listen to the conversation
Of liquid talking to solid,
Of water pushing into the land
The dynamic erosion of the earth
Bubbling in the foam of ocean waves
Gurgling in the rapids and waterfalls,
Energy that shapes and sculpts,
Nourishing the chemistry of life
The crashing of rocks, the chatter of pebbles
The murmur of the sand
Ground eternally finer and smoother
By the great wheel of time
The thunder of crashing breakers
Relentlessly pounding rocky cliffs
Hammering out beautiful stone arches
Until they crumble and fall.
And here we crash,
on the boardwalk in the high desert.
A brief rip in the sky creates some sun-caked hallway
The day has hardly begun and we’ve cried,
held each other
tightly, talking about death and dreams
A normal Monday, you might say
While I wait for you to join me,
Instead, you pull out your phone to take a picture
And all I can think is
I wish I had a different face,
The one I used to carry.
But I smile, because these pictures are for you
For after I’m gone
And I am not one to judge
What face you want to remember