I started last year in a maze, my life had changed beyond belief. I had been made redundant after 28 happy years with the same company and had just completed my first of of six sessions of Fect-T chemotherapy after being diagnosed with grade 3 breast cancer in November 2014, something that I just couldn’t get my head around. I had it, I was being treated for it and was still in a total state of shock!!
I tried to gain a little control or routine in my life with no avail. I couldn’t concentrate on a fiction book, TV program or even a telephone conversation, it was as it my whole being was in such a shocked state that to try and loose myself in anything was an impossibility. An aunt suggested I had “chemo brain”. It was nice to have an excuse but really I just knew it was fear, hair loss,hospitals,worry and bottled emotions. Trying to put on a brave face and coping for family and friends was not helping me.
I knew I needed to do something, something completely different and also something I really really wanted to do. Before I had a chance to talk myself out of it, I had enrolled in a clay sculpture class. I went along lacking confidence, feeling mentally and physically half the person I was.
The first sculpture was to be made out of terracotta clay, I decided to make a fish shape until I heard the other ladies suggesting things like a polar bear, a deer and figures. I knew then I needed to up my game and blurted out “my dog!!”
From that moment on, I slowly and expressively created Beau, my wire haired sausage dog. Gradually, out of clay, I worked and I became so immersed in my work; my hands were occupied, my head was full of love and concentration as she began to grow, it was almost like meditation. To be completely enchansed by moulding and challenged by the clay, I was totally absorbed with it.
I can safely say that I’m now hooked; dogs, curlews and daisies have been created, but above all so has my mind. I truly feel that it helped me and is still helping me come to terms with what this last year had in store. I strongly recommend creating and moving forward goes hand in hand. It’s the sense of achievement, calming and relaxing that have been so important both in getting through and moving on.
In the first of the Samspaces Guest Blogs I want to introduce Jenny. I met Jenny through the Spero App (more info on that coming soon) and after reading a few of her blogs, so much of her passion for writing resonated with me and I asked her to help illustrate why it can be so healing to write. Over the next few months I will be featuring other guest blogs from other amazing people I have met and know, who have all found a positive focus, either through a creative channel or other types of exercise or other holistic therapies. I will still be blogging about all the things I have tried but by including other peoples experiences, I hope there will be a bigger community of us sharing all the different things that can help us through.
When I was seven years old, my mother gave me the closet in her study. It was a space just large enough for a few crucial supplies, and my small body. First we moved in a miniature futon, which barely lay flat along the floor. Then some pillows, a small lamp and an even smaller shelf that held my notebooks and paper and pens. There was no door, so we nailed a curtain—dark purple, I believe—that hung from frame to floor. I taped quotes and post cards of inspiring places on the walls. And day upon day, I curled up in that room and wrote myself through elementary school. By the time I outgrew my closet, I also felt like I was outgrowing my life, but I was still painfully stuck in it. And so, I wrote myself through that, as well. Before I left home for college, I packed all of my writing notebooks into an old suitcase and asked my mother to please, please take it with her if by some chance our home ever caught fire.
When I was growing up, I wrote because I had to. Not because someone else told me I had to write, but because my body demanded it of me. When my seven-year old friends banded together to exclude me for the day, I would go home to the closet-converted-into-a-writing room and write poem after bad poem about friendship, loneliness, betrayal. When my parents filled up the house with all their silent anger at one another, I crawled into my refuge and wrote. When I had a scary dream, or an exciting crush, or an angry fight, I pulled out my notebook and wrote. Because if I didn’t, I felt I would crumble, or explode, or drown.
Writing got me through childhood, and more recently, it got me through breast cancer.
When I was diagnosed one month before my 40th birthday, my life stopped for a couple of days, and then for the next few weeks, it sped up with that breathless schedule of doctor’s appointments and tests and second opinions and fights with insurance companies and conversations with family and planning for what was to come. I felt a fear I’d never known before—the fear that I wouldn’t get to see my children grow up. I felt a gratitude I never would have expected in such times: what an outpouring of support from all corners of my life! I felt a strength that I didn’t know I had. And I felt a desperate need to write.
For days, because of the breathless schedule, I seemed unable to secure even ten minutes for myself. When I finally did, I snuck off to my bedroom much the same way I used to sneak off to my closet, and I poured the swirls of questions and emotion and logistics onto the page; and for the first time in almost two weeks, I felt like I could breath. It was like I turned myself inside out, hosed out the chaos, and then settled back into my bones for the first time since my diagnosis.
When I think about what helped carry me through the last year of grueling breast cancer treatment, I think about my amazing community of family and friends, and I think about my writing. (Okay, I also think about my couch and Netflix and anti-nausea meds, but mostly I think about my family, my friends and my writing.)
Cancer has been a transformative experience for me. Cancer turned my life upside down and turned me inside out in terrifying-exhilarating-inspiring ways. (Terrifying, of course, but yes, also exhilarating and inspiring.)
I know many people with a cancer diagnosis resent the notion that cancer could ever be a gift, and so I am self-conscious at times about talking and writing about my own experience in this way. Would I ever ask for breast cancer? No. Would I ever wish breast cancer on another? No. But neither can I say I would wish it all away at this point, because in many ways, my diagnosis propelled me forward. (That said, at least for the time being, it looks like cancer is not going to take me from my children before they are grown, which of course is not the case for far too many women with a breast cancer diagnosis. So in different shoes, I imagine I would wish it all away.)
In her beautifully inspiring book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
…surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you.
The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living.
When I talk about “creative living” here, please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts… I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.
I am three months out of treatment and deeply immersed in exploring who I really am, who I want to be and what kind of life I want to live now that I have faced death in a way that many people don’t until they are much older than I am. Writing allows me to do this work—it allows me to do this terrifying-exhilarating-inspiring exploration. (So do many other things, like: privilege; a wise therapist and equally wise friends; an off-the-charts supportive husband; parents who encourage me to find and follow my passion; children who make me want to unearth and model my very best self.) Writing is how I make sense of my insides. Writing is how I make sense of the world around me. Writing is how I come home to myself and also how I put myself out into the world.
Writing is how I find my buried treasure, and since my breast cancer diagnosis, I am more committed and curious than ever in the dig.
© Jenny Binh Bender, 2015