Writing is for me what therapy or praying or nature is for other people. It settles my mind and lightens my heart. Without it, I think I might burst through the delicate seams of my seemingly sane life and find myself floating through the world without direction.
I first experienced the value of writing as a healing tool more than a decade ago, when fibromyalgia changed the trajectory of my life. By writing about what I was going through, I found I could better cope with the prison-like pain. Journaling brought clarity and solace when confusion and isolation could so easily have swallowed me whole.
So, two years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I hoped writing would help me make sense of the overwhelming news. It didn’t. Instead, the pages of my journal stared back at me with mocking blankness. I remember hurling the journal across the room and the startling sound it made as it crashed against the wall, like a bird striking a window.
Clearly, cancer was a different creature. I’d barely absorbed the reality of my diagnosis and already I faced an unexpected side effect: Cancer had made me mute. As I put the journal away, I felt a knot form in my chest, just behind my heart.
I put things in perspective. Whatever awaited me on this journey, I knew I was fortunate. My cancer was found early, my prognosis was excellent and I had the support of my husband, family and friends. Strengthened by a sense of gratitude, I stepped into the new rhythm of my life. Surgery. Treatment. Drug therapy. Follow-up. Anticipation, anxiety. Recovery, relief.
Occasionally, I’d bring out my journal, only to find the magnitude of the disease remained beyond words. How could sharp scratches of ink express the vague fear that shadowed me during the day and seeped into my dreams? At some point I’d return to writing. But not yet.
I focused on keeping cancer at bay. Between brain-fog and fatigue, I tracked down every possible anti-cancer program on the Internet. I tried alternative therapies: from qigong to meditation, from naturopaths to acupuncturists. I sought nutritional advice: this amount of Vitamin D, not that; no soy, some soy, maybe soy. And I ate kale. Pounds and pounds of kale.
A year later, just as my energy was returning, another tumour was found and required monitoring. More tests. More waiting. I felt the knot in my chest grow tighter.
Call it synchronicity or luck, but that’s when I stumbled upon a writing program at a local cancer-support centre. With trepidation, I took my first step back to writing. We weren’t expected to write about cancer. Some did. I didn’t.
My pieces focused on significant moments from my past: the English teacher responsible for my love of reading; my special bond with my niece, Krista; the story my mother loved to tell of my birth. Each week, in our alternating roles of storyteller and audience, we gave each other a gift: We reminded each other that we each have a bigger story than this disease.
Finally, the interminable wait for test results was over: no evidence of cancer. I should have been dancing for joy. But as I shared the good news with those closest to me, I heard a trace of disbelief in my voice, as if I remained unconvinced.
And then my 16-year-old niece extended an invitation. Actually, it was more like an order. Krista’s blue eyes pierce the dullness of this world like shafts of light. Joy lives in those eyes. So when she looked at me with that wise-beyond-her-years-look and said, “Auntie, you should walk in my high school’s cancer relay for life,” I knew I had to say yes.
The night of the relay, volunteers distributed yellow balloons to those of us at various stages of our cancer journey, to release at the end of our victory lap. But by the time they reached me, they’d run out of balloons. “Take this, Auntie,” Krista said, handing me a bright blue balloon attached to an extremely long ribbon. I later learned she’d asked for one of the balloons decorating the admissions tables. With Krista cheering me on, her mom, my sister Marisa, at my side and a blue balloon flying overhead, I began walking.
At one point Marisa said “Look over there.” On the field beyond the track, candle lanterns spelled out a message. “HOPE,” she whispered. I gulped back tears.
We’d nearly come full circle when I saw Krista on the sidelines. She looked so serious. I thought about how difficult it must have been for her to watch me go through cancer. I caught her gaze and smiled a wide smile. Her blue eyes lit up.
Reaching the finish line, I prepared to let go of the balloon. But I’d wound the ribbon so tightly it had left an indentation in my hand. With my sister’s help, I untangled it. We turned our faces upward and watched as my balloon joined those already in flight. So many golden suns against a vast sky. And mine: a single blue orb. I hugged my sister and niece. Something happened to me in that moment, but I wasn’t sure what until later.
That night, I opened my journal. For the first time since my diagnosis, words asserted themselves, filling page after page. As I wrote, I realized that while I’d been busy keeping cancer at bay, fear had attached itself to me like a second skin. I pictured the blue balloon drifting among the clouds. I felt the knot behind my heart disappear. That night, cancer receded into the background of my life. Hope, glowing like a candle, took its rightful place.
Rosalba Roberts lives in Toronto.