How Breast Cancer Helped Make Me The Writer I Am Today
by Diana Raab
The day my mother gave me a journal to help me cope with my grandmother’s suicide undoubtedly changed my life forever. That seemingly benign gesture when I was ten years old, laid the groundwork for my life as a writer. Following this continuum, and after a serious health crisis, I became riveted to make a decision which went against my character and one which I never thought I would do.
My cancer journey began in mid-2001 when I was called back to the hospital for a repeat annual mammogram and eventually diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer called DCIS. At the time, my husband, three kids and myself were living in Orlando. My doctor suggested I obtain a second opinion from Dr. Mel Silverstein, a Los Angeles specialist in this type of breast cancer. Within a couple of weeks, my husband and I boarded the plane out to Los Angeles and after enduring all the necessary tests, Dr. Silverstein presented my options – either to have radiation and chemotherapy or a mastectomy with reconstruction. After years as a practicing nurse, I learned that the best way to make a decision when given a choice by your physician was to ask what he’d suggest for his own wife. Because of his answer, I opted for a mastectomy and reconstruction.
While in California, and a few days following my surgery, I sat in my hospital bed surrounded by orchids sent from loved ones dispersed around the country. Tear-saturated tissues lay piled high on my bedside table and the early morning sun peaked through the large window. The emotional pain of losing a breast had hit hard. When my surgeon said he would soon remove the corset-like bandage tightened around my chest, I feared seeing what lie beneath and the new condition of one of the breasts that had nursed my three now teenage children.
Just days after my surgery, my husband reached out across the sterile white bed sheets to take my hand. Simon, an engineer and a “fixer,” had a difficult time watching me navigate through this intense physical and emotional pain. He nestled up close and wrapped both his hands around mine. He looked deeply into my eyes like he did years earlier on the day of my father’s passing.
“Right now,” he asked, “if you could do one thing which would make you happy, what would that be?” Aside from transporting my children across the country to be with me, I confessed that I wanted to return to school for my Masters in Writing. For years, this had been a dream of mine and the recent surgery suddenly slapped me face to face with my own mortality and my apparent race against time. I wanted to make this dream to come true. “Well then, we’ll make it happen,” he said.
It is not that his offer healed the deep psychological wounds of having lost a breast, but the idea of returning to school gave me something to look forward to. It was also something my mother never thought I would do. After a fair amount of research, I applied to some out-of-state, low-residency programs. I was ecstatic to be accepted into Spalding University’s charter class lead by Sena Jeter Naslund, which was to commence on September 25th, 2001, about a month after my surgery.
Since that day in my childhood when my mother gave me my first journal, I had always found solace in the written word. Journaling became a passion which I turned to during other turbulent times, whether my own adolescence, difficult pregnancies or cancer. To meet the requirements of my graduate work, I decided to gather my journal entries, reflections and poems written during my post-operative recovery and shape them into a book.
The collection chronicled my breast cancer journey and the physical and mental anguish associated with it. My initial instinct was to prepare this document for my family to help them understand my passion for writing and also how strongly I felt about the healing power of journaling. I wanted to inspire them to write through their own turbulent times as well.
After returning home to Florida and before heading to Kentucky to begin my first brief-residency weekend, the horrific events of 9/11 occurred. On the morning of September 11th, I sat in my living room awaiting a visit from a dear friend. While anticipating the sound of the door bell, the phone rang.
“Oh dear Diana,” my friend said, “Are you watching TV?” I told her I had just turned it on and with the rest of America, watched the horrific images of the planes crashing into the twin towers.
Images of lost lives and lost breasts alternated in my mind. I thought about all those severed lives and my own severed breast. Not only was I mourning the loss of my breast, but I was suddenly mourning the huge loss to our country and the city of my youth. Physically I was still weak, but emotionally this traumatic event affected me down to my core. I didn’t want the pain and anxiety of this tragedy to kill me. I continued to reach out to my passion and lifeline of journaling.
In view of all the chaos surrounding 9/11, we weren’t even sure if our MFA program would begin on time. I was delighted to hear that it would. As a group of graduate student writers, our first assignment was to write a poem addressing our impression of the events of 9/11. As we sat around the large conference room table, our eyes became watery and emotions pour onto the pages.
It took the full two years for me to pull together all the information and journal entries into a book that my mentor suggested I publish. The surprising part is that it took eight years for me to find the courage to actually have it published. I simply was not sure whether its personal nature was something I wanted to share with the world. For me, revealing the intimate details of my story was akin to hanging my underwear on a clothesline outside my window. As someone who has always been a relatively private person, exposing myself seemed neither intuitive nor a good fit to my personality. In the end, after speaking with my mentor and some colleagues, it was decided that the process would be cathartic and most importantly, beneficial for others, particularly my two daughters who would one day have to face the torment of possibly being affected by cancer.
My emotions were raw and in addition to prose and journal entries, the book includes poems composed during my journey. Here’s a sample:
To My Daughters
You were the first I thought of
when diagnosed with what
strikes one in eight women.
It was too soon to leave you,
but I thought it a good sign
that none of us were born
under its pestilent zodiac.
I stared at the stars and wished
upon each one that you’d never
wake up as I did this morning
to one real breast and one fake one;
but that the memories you carry
will be only sweet ones, and then
I remembered you had your early traumas
of being born too soon, and losing
a beloved grandpa too young. I have
this urge to show you the scars
on the same breasts you both cuddled
as babies, but then I wonder why
you’d want to see my imperfections
and perhaps your destiny. I cave in
and show you anyway, hoping you learn
to eat well and visit your doctors, but then
I wonder if it really matters, as I remember
what your grandpa Umpie used to say,
“When your time’s up, it’s up.”
May he always watch over you.
I’m so glad my husband inspired and pushed me to return to graduate school which lead to the publishing of Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. I knew that my writing life would not stop there. Daily journaling continued to be an integral part of my well-being and a key to my survival. I became inspired to help others heal and transform through writing. At the age of fifty-eight I again returned to school for my PhD in psychology. The focus of my research was the healing and transformative powers of memoir writing. Like my MFA, my research became transformed into a book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life (Loving Healing Press, 2017). Returning to school as an adult was one of the best decisions of my life, and quite possibly saved my life as well!
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