Writing became an important coping mechanism for me many years ago, when I was really struggling after cancer. My post-cancer demons had me in such a dark place that I had contemplated suicide as a means to an end, and it was at that point that I realized I needed help. My wife did her best to support me, and to make me feel loved and valued at a time when I felt completely worthless. I called my oncologist's office for a therapist, I called my cancer mentor for help and guidance, I started running every day over lunch to bleed off the extreme anxiety that I felt on a day to day basis, and, I started writing. The writing in particular really stuck, and as this website is proof of, has never really stopped.
Writing About Cancer Isn't Easy
Writing about cancer and all of this inner pain that it had brought into my life has never been easy, but the rewards for doing so have always far outweighed the hardship. It's one of the hardest, but also simultaneously one of the best things I've ever done.
My wife, Debbie, came up to me one day a year or two ago with a very befuddled and frustrated look on her face. I was in tears at my computer once again, doing some writing with a glass of wine next to me. She asked, "why do you write if it hurts you so much?," obviously not wanting to see her husband in pain. The answer wasn't that I was hurting because I was writing, I'm writing because I'm hurting, trying to release more pain, and trying to find ways to heal and keep moving forward in life. I was four years out from cancer at that point I think, and couldn't stop being afraid. I was fearful of developing a second cancer, or experiencing an extremely dangerous recurrence of my first, and frustrated to no end. We don't have conscious control over very deeply rooted feelings like these. I couldn't stop being afraid, but refused to live in fear any more, and vowed to do whatever it took to overcome this perpetual post-cancer fear once and for all.
The blog that I ultimately published in late-2016 about overcoming fear after cancer, was probably my biggest blog of the year, getting many thousands of hits, comments, and shares on social media and at the IHadCancer.com website. Cancer isn't just a disease of our bodies, it becomes a disease of our minds also, that can persist and continue to haunt us for years, long after cancer has left our bodies. Thus, the argument that we make in cancer advocacy circles, is that healing someone from cancer means healing the whole patient, and not just eradicating their bodies of the cancerous cells. I saw this all over the comments in response to my blog about overcoming fear. There were no shortages of comments from those that were many years or even decades out from their cancer fights, and still living in a state of fear from it all. Many of these people had been cured or in full remission, yet cancer still continued to affect them as a disease of their minds, in the form of the fear it leaves inside of us.
Writing Is One of The Most Rewarding Things I've Ever Done
Cancer as a disease of the mind had persisted inside of me for years, too, and that's why I've continued to fight it, in the form of writing. The process of writing, and of putting raw emotion down on paper, has always helped me to channel what I've been feeling into something more coherent. Writing is a cathartic experience, and the writing process helps me to understand what I'm feeling and why, and ultimately, what I could do about things. Once I've written about something, I feel as though I've overcome it. Then, the only thing you have to be willing to do, is finding the courage to make the changes that you need to make in your life in order to keep moving forward. Or maybe you don't need to do anything at all, and just needed to get it out?
Writing has always been a bit of a damned if you do, but more damned if you don't affair for me. It's easier to not write at all, yet if I don't process pain that I've felt inside it's impossible to ever move beyond it, like posttraumatic stress, and perpetual fear after cancer. When I write, it does bring a lot of painful memories from the back burner to a full boil. Why not just leave them on the back burner? Because I grow weary of having them there, resent the needless mental clutter with these worries in the background, and occasionally they sneak up to a full boil on their own and make a mess, when I'd rather just be free of it all. If I bring it front and center and just crank it up to eleven and burn it all off through writing, then it's gone for good and will never bother me again. Isn't that better? It is, but it can take time to finally get there.
Writing About Cancer Takes Time
Contrary to what many think, when I publish something about cancer, it's not something that I'm experiencing right now. In almost all cases it's been at least a year ago, and even moreso now, many. Some of the things I'd been through with respect to cancer had been so painful and traumatic that it took me a few years just to open up and start writing about them at all. My physical fight against cancer was in 2011, but it wasn't until 2013 that I really started "writing" about cancer, and not until 2014 that I started doing so publicly. Posttraumatic stress after cancer had hit me hard at the tail end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and I suffered from it throughout 2013. It wasn't until the tail end of 2015, nearly three years after its onset, that I was finally able to publish my first of three major essays about PTSD.
It takes that long to find your way through it, for the pain to lessen, and for thoughts to mature to the point that you can write in a way that doesn't cause yourself harm, and is uplifting and beneficial to others. When it came to writing about PTSD, which is something I really needed to do, as soon as I would go there mentally it would trigger all of those terrible protective instincts again, and I just couldn't. When I write about a very hurtful topic, it's often because I'm finally fed up enough with those repeating back burner flare ups that I'm ready to finally take something head on, and rid myself of it for good. I've not had any issues with PTSD in years now, and it was only after I took this elephant in the room issue head on, and worked my way through it via my writing, that I was finally able to heal from it and move on.
On Writing Publicly About Cancer
You don't have to have a blog or a website, nor do you have to write publicly about something to benefit from writing. You can write just for yourself, in a private journal of some sort, just as I did early on. The decision to write fully publicly about my cancer experience was a big one, but I'd had a ton of encouragement from a few close friends who had seen early drafts of my first cancer survivorship essay. They knew that writing like this could make a big difference for so many people, and that it had the potential to not just help young adults such as myself facing a cancer crisis, but anyone facing a crisis or difficult period of their lives.
I blog using my real name. Anybody can Google me and find out all sorts of things about me, that I've had cancer, experienced PTSD and suicidal thoughts, and either you're comfortable with that or you're not. Ultimately, I decided that I had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, and actually quite a bit to be pretty darned proud of. My story is a positive story, one of having been through some extremely dark places after cancer, but finding your way through it, empowering yourself to make the changes that you need to in your life, finally coming back into the light, and using that experience to help uplift others. I'm very proud of my cancer journey, complete with all of its dark and twisted moments. It's made me who and what I am, and not only am I proud of the person that I've become after cancer, but it feels so good to be recognized for that in a significant way as well.
YOUR STORY COULD BE THE KEY THAT UNLOCKS SOMEONE ELSE'S PRISON
There's a lot of things I enjoy about fully public cancer writing, but what I enjoy the most is helping people to know that they're never alone. Especially as young adult survivors, we have so few peers that have been through anything like what we have given that young adult cancers are so rare. Feelings of isolation are common. We all think we're alone in our struggles, but we're never alone. I love reading through the comments on my blogs and seeing "My God, this is me!" and "I thought I was the only one!", and then "I know I'm not alone now!" I love seeing people light up like this. We think we're all so different, and that we're so alone, but our humanity binds us. We're all human beings, we have the same thought processes, and when faced with a life crisis such as cancer, we all think and feel so many of the same things. Seeing such common responses to my writing has been a very unifying and comforting thing for me to witness as a writer. We're not so different after all, and we're never truly alone. I love all of the comments that I get, I love all of the interaction, I love the people that I get to know, and I love knowing that all of my efforts are not just helping me to heal and recover, but helping others as well.
What I love more than anything though, are the occasional messages that I get that leave me speechless, and stopped in my tracks. Numerous people have told me that my first essay about surviving young adult cancer has changed their lives, and is the best thing they've ever read. A childhood cancer survivor who is now an adult, told me that they had felt every word of my essay and had wanted to write something just like it for years, but hadn't even known where to start. They finally felt the release that they had needed to feel for years, through reading the words of another. A testicular cancer survivor had been suffering from PTSD for years, but had never realized that was what it was, nor that it was even a possibility, until they read my PTSD After Cancer essay series. Another life changed, and another person unlocked from their own mental prison such that the true healing could finally begin. I've had a professional therapist send me a note, telling me that they were using my PTSD story to help patients that had been suffering from posttraumatic stress as well. I have much respect for professional therapists, but sometimes it's best to hear it from another real live human being that's really been there, too.
One of the best comments I've ever received though, was from another testicular cancer survivor a few years ago who was a 10 year survivor, but had never opened up to anyone about his cancer history. He had felt so trapped and alone for years, but felt all of the same fear and anxiety that so many of us do. Without any true outlets or people to open up to, he had found himself in such a depressive downward spiral that he had become suicidal. He read my essay titled, "The Best Way to Survive Cancer is to LIVE!", and found himself in my writing so strongly that it helped to finally pull him out of the depressive and suicidal downward spiral that he had been trapped in for years. In moments like these when I know that I've made such a profound difference in the lives of others, every bit of pain and frustration I've ever felt while writing, and all of the tears and sleepless nights becomes worth it. My writing mission doesn't just helping myself and others to heal, it's potentially helped to save lives as well.
My young adult cancer survivorship writing mission hasn't just changed my life and that of others for the better, it's potentially helped to save lives as well. It can be terrifying to put such dark things out there about yourself, but the profound good that can be done by sharing such experiences is immense, and shouldn't be underestimated.
How Do You Write?
I have a huge confession to make. I don't really know how to write, nor how to describe any particular writing process! I'm a guy and and actually an engineer, so obviously I can't write, but I just write, and am now an award-winning writer about a very challenging subject no less. I asked my good friend and writer pal, Hanssie, for help, hoping that maybe she'd know of some sort of formal process to help people get started, especially knowing that she was a teacher. Hanssie writes about the painful divorce she's been through at her website in the same manner that I write about cancer on mine, but she wasn't of much help either! Hanssie did provide us with the only thing that one really needs to know about writing as a means of coping or healing, in the form of this Ernest Hemmingway quote.
"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." - Ernest Hemingway
Perfect! That's really all there is to it, and pretty much where my writing has come from. As Hanssie described to me, "I realized I could write when I was teaching my 4th grade class on creative writing. I wrote a bit when I blogged about photography and then I 'bled' after the divorce when I just didn't know what else to do to keep moving forward."
It was the same exact experience for me in the aftermath of cancer. I had always known that I had some inherent writing ability that I could utilize, and many people had told me over the years that I had great writing skills. I figured nearly ten years ago, long before cancer entered my life, that I ought to use that ability someday and write a book, but I didn't know what to write about. Alas, this decade of my 30's has given me plenty of material. I finally started tapping into this ability when I'd reached rock bottom from my cancer experience, and just starting "bleeding" into a private journal. The journal writing evolved after a year into my first major essay about cancer survivorship, then onto fully public writing about cancer at the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation, IHadCancer.com, and now my very own award-winning website. Not bad. :)
If you want to give writing as a coping and healing mechanism a try, just sit down and write, and see what comes out? You have nothing to lose, and it could change your life.