David Tabatsky is an author and editor of many books, including Write for Life: Communicating Your Way Through Cancer and The Cancer Book: 101 Stories of Courage, Support and Love. Since 2010, he has facilitated expressive writing workshops with patients, survivors, caregivers, friends, and family members at cancer centers across the United States.
Like countless Americans, my friend Jane is struggling with an advanced stage of cancer. While her treatments are certainly tough, Jane’s most difficult challenge is being separated from her nine-year-old daughter for weeks at a time.
I met Jane while leading one of my writing workshops, and we spoke afterward about our children. Jane had plenty to be frightened about, but she was most afraid of losing a connection with her daughter.
“How about writing her a letter?” I asked.
Jane looked puzzled.
“On a piece of paper, with a pen,” I explained. “Then you fold up your thoughts and feelings and put them in an envelope with this thing called a stamp, and someone on a horse will ride across the desert and bring a piece of you to your daughter.”
Jane laughed, which was a first step toward taking some control of her situation, and pondered the thought of communicating the old-fashioned way.
“When she sees her name on the envelope and that the letter is from you,” I added, “it will mean everything to her, I’m sure.”
Jane smiled, excited by such a simple idea.
“It’s like I’m at camp and writing a letter home,” she said.
If you’re a patient struggling to cope, you need every tool you can fit in your box. As an advocate for communication, especially in times of great stress, I believe that writing can become a beautiful bridge––to our own thoughts, for those we love, and as a way of reaching out to our support team.
While visiting cancer centers around the country, I’ve discovered that there is an elephant in every workshop room, and it is not cancer itself. The real elephant is fear––for your own life or that of a loved one. If you are a doctor or nurse, you face the same issues, multiplied more than most of us can imagine.
The core question for everyone is identical: What are you afraid of?
You can talk about it, but that’s hard and you need someone to talk to. So what about writing it down? There’s an invitation to begin letting go of the fear. Life is too short to be afraid of it, no matter how long it may last.
You can write to yourself in a journal, write a letter to your loved one like Jane did, or reach out to the doctor––all good choices. But what about writing to cancer, both literally and in the abstract, because they are practically interchangeable at this point? Consider it an active meditation, a commitment to putting your best foot forward as you work your way through this journey. The cancer does not have to be inside of you in order to write to it. Indirectly, it’s inside each of us, especially if there is someone we love currently dealing with a diagnosis.
“Dear Cancer, I’ve got something to say.”
Of course you do! Give yourself the gift of time, just a few minutes to reach outside yourself, and by doing so––by letting go––you will embrace what’s right in front of you. You may feel a semblance of control you hadn’t previously experienced in the midst of an overwhelming situation.
Self-expression is a way to define your story. It can also provide a degree of separation and detachment that is both empowering and liberating.
Jane, still determined to create a story that makes sense for her life, was thrilled to receive a letter from her daughter, scrawled in her perfect nine-year-old handwriting. Perhaps this young girl can write to cancer, too––just like her mother––offering up the chance to manage her anxiety by expressing her own deepest feelings.
With a piece of paper and a pen, there’s really nothing holding any of us back beyond our own imagination.
“Dear Cancer, this is me you’re dealing with…”