How Writing Saved My Life
An honest and encouraging account of the writer's battle with cancer and how writing helped her emerge from the morass of depression and pain, the affliction had engendered.
In 1964 when I was ten years old, my grandmother took her life in my childhood home. In those days, psychotherapy was not spoken about, so instead, my mother handed me a Khalil Gibran journal to help me cope with the loss of my grandmother and caretaker. That seemingly benign gesture changed my life forever, as it 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 hit hard. When my surgeon said he would soon remove the corset-like bandage tightened around my chest, I feared seeing what lay beneath and the new condition of one of the breasts that had nursed my three now teenaged 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 gathered my journal entries, reflections and poems written about my cancer journey and made it into a self-help memoir.
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 doorbell, 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 poured onto the pages.
It took a full two years for me to pull together all the information and journal entries into a book that my mentor suggested I publish. It actually 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.
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. Even though I never thought I would do it—it was one of the best decisions of my life. The next best decision was helping more people deal with their life crises by writing my book, Writing or Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Writing has definitely saved my life!
Diana Raab, PhD, is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and author of 10 books and is a contributor to numerous journals and anthologies. Her two latest books are, "Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life," and "Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal." Her poetry chapbook, "An Imaginary Affair," was recently published in July 2022 with Finishing Line Press. She blogs for Psychology Today, Thrive Global, Sixty and Me, Good Men Project, and The Wisdom Daily and is a frequent guest blogger for various other sites. www.dianaraab.com.