This week, Denise guest blogs for us about how her passion for writing and her faith helped her through breast cancer treatment.
I drove back up the hill from the doctor’s surgery and fell into my husband’s arms. Between sobs I shared the Grade 3 HER2+ breast cancer diagnosis for the first, but far from the last, time.
Within an hour I had picked up a pen, and one of the journals I had been gifted for my 50th birthday three weeks earlier had been christened.
It was to be my constant companion through the worst year of my life. The means I used to speak when I couldn’t verbalise the emotions swirling around in my head. The only means of communicating those emotions I was able to control: of venting, of hoping, of sobbing, when I knew if I started speaking them, rather than writing them, I would never be able to stop.
A year on and my husband and girls have read the resulting book. ‘I had no idea you felt that way, why didn’t you say?’ became a theme from each of them. Regularly recurring when the book was published with friends echoing their words. It contained the words that were simply too hard for my husband and daughters to hear when we were all drowning in a sea of fear and uncertainty.
My journal was an extension of myself. It was always by my side on hospital beds, always to be found in my handbag next to appointment schedules, on my lap on regular State-funded taxi journeys to and from radiotherapy sessions (welcome to French healthcare) and on the tray in front of me as I sat with poison dripping into my veins, tears rolling down my cheeks. It was often the first thing I picked up in the morning, the last to leave my treatment-trashed fingertips at night.
As I edited the initial draft months later, the rawness of it’s words shocked me, but I knew not to remove or change them. I was instinctively aware that’s where the book’s power lay.
I could ‘escape’ and hide within it’s pages. My hope that I could remain whole lived there; despite oncologists, surgeons and nurses giving me none.
I prayed at times as I wrote. At other times the ink blurred, tears staining it’s pages. I even laughed at random moments as humorous thoughts, triggered by light-hearted reading material and video clips, ran through my chemotherapy-addled brain.
Writing became my release. My way to scream in frustration at times, at others to celebrate the small victories as scans were cancelled when ‘cancerous-looking cells’ had ‘mysteriously disappeared’. (My faith tells me there was no mystery and constant prayers were being answered on my miracle journey.)
I wrote in diary format and at times I would re-read early parts of it and realise just how far I’d travelled. It bolstered my resolve to continue with fasting around treatments and the strict plant-based diet I’d adopted, shunning all dairy and sugar, supplementing with a myriad of vitamins, probiotics and essential oils. I marvelled at how I was able to walk every single day during the chemotherapy treatments and continue with twice-weekly aerobics classes (despite having to wear a thermal vest to keep my emaciated frame warm, whilst focused on keeping ‘Winnie the Wig’ in place). My strength of character amazed me in retrospect and encouraged me to continue, confirming just how strong mind over matter can be.
I am so glad I have a detailed record of that time. Thankful to both my friend Fiona and my dear daughter Rebecca for indulging their mother’s passion with their birthday gifts. They could never have known what a blessing those blank pages would become.
Maybe writing’s not your ‘thing’. I would encourage you to search for whatever is. To discover your release valve, take a diversion, find an interest as you attempt to keep your ‘head above water’ and refuse to drown in the sea of uncertainty that is ‘Cancerland’.
I was able to temporarily ‘lose’ myself in my journal. It calmed me. It was part of my anchor in a stormy sea. It helped counter unhelpful anxiety levels and the stresses that all cancer patients face. At the end of treatment I had a couple of ‘talking therapy’ sessions. During those sessions I often referred to events and emotions I’d described within the journal’s pages, confirming anew what an important part it had played in my healing. It helped keep me sane.
Sharing it is cathartic too. A way of using my experience to both empower others that already find themselves in Cancerland, whilst showing ways of possibly making that destination less of a certainty. The National Health Service describes me as an ‘Expert by Experience.’ I like that.
For me writing simply helped me through.
Denise is a church founder, an author and speaker who lives in SW France with her husband Tom and her three daughters. She was diagnosed with grade 3 HER2+ breast cancer in October 2017. Today she is healed and whole, sharing her story to encourage and empower others.