After Cancer, Creative Writing Helped Her Rebuild Her Sense Of Self
It is difficult to put mind over matter when struggling to survive a cancer episode. The physical demands of the body can easily overwhelm the psyche and the deep well of our creativity. For some people, simply getting through the day with proper nourishment and medications may be all they can muster. For others—those at the end of a chemo cycle or those whose treatment protocols have not subjected them to the toils of chemotherapy for instance—access to help via the arts lies closer to the surface. Immersing themselves in the creative process, whether it be through studio art, music, dance, or writing can help cancer patients move beyond the fatiguing or painful aspects of treatment into a psychological space free of the vicissitudes of illness. In my own life, the desire to build something new, even in an abstract sense, signifies repair of the spirit and growth of the intellect. If there was ever a metaphor for new life, our creative will helps us turn the corner on cancer and seek that new life.
The process of re-assembling the self became an artistic endeavor...
Innovative treatments in the area of immunotherapy promise better outcomes for curing cancer or for sending ‘repeat customers’ into a kind of eternal remission—certainly some bright news for those who have lived to tell their stories of illness. While scientific advances may give sufferers a reprieve and cause for hope—elements that may lift the spirits and ameliorate an unstable outlook—it is harder to know what to do about residual worry, especially when a treatment protocol has ended: Will the cancer come back? If it does come back, will I be able to detect it in time to prevent disaster? Will I be able to seek the support of friends and family members whose resources I seriously taxed during this episode? How will my child cope with the understanding that the cancer may return? Questions of this nature constitute the psychic ‘trail of tears’ well known to the cancer community. In this sense, the opportunity to engage in creative work may alleviate distress.
Of course, access to creativity also depends on the configuration of one’s domestic surroundings: Are there adult advocates and caregivers at home? Or is the cancer patient a single parent with children in tow? It is not surprising that people of social privilege, despite the rigors of their disease, are more likely to have the time and financial wherewithal to consider creative action, whereas those whose energies are directed at providing food and shelter for dependents and who may lack adequate insurance coverage are at a significant disadvantage, both in terms of the space to heal and the time and energy they can summon to get their creative juices flowing.
Cancer itself has been a great leveler in the sense that its targets come from all walks of life. But there are enormous differences when it comes to seeking and obtaining treatment, as well as in what one can do to repair the psychic damage that a cancerous tumor causes.
If a person is fortunate enough to have access to steady medical care and the resources of a competent cancer institution, then acting on creative impulses, even if they occur rarely, may be a tonic. In my own experience of unrelated peritoneal and breast cancers in 2000 and 2004, my responses to creativity could not have been more different. The peritoneal cancer caused morbid and continuous nausea for a period of nine months, effectively barring me from any consideration of creativity or of imaginative play, which had otherwise been a central part of my consciousness. Reading about others’ cancer experiences did not alleviate the nausea; listening to music, even Henryk Gorecki’s beautiful third symphony—a gift from a dear friend—could not tamp down the urge to vomit. As I came to learn, nausea and I were not on speaking terms; I could think of nothing else during that Cisplatin-induced haze except hoping, begging not to feel nauseous. I was miserable without a way to induce the forgetfulness that creativity inspires.
However, during my months of treatment for breast cancer—a battery of Adriamycin and Cytoxan chemos, followed by surgery, followed by more rounds of chemo with Taxol, followed by breast irradiation—I felt much better. Although it may seem surprising, I experienced only minor nausea and found that I could focus on activities that gave me pleasure, like reading and writing. I documented my hair loss and my decision not to wear a wig, believing that I might come back to those ideas and write about them. As an academic developing an interest in illness narrative, these journals helped me gather my thoughts in the aftermath of my treatment, in what I now refer to as my ‘Arimidex Days,’ or the five-year period in which I daily took that Tamoxifen-like drug. The journals reappeared in 2009 in an essay I wrote for Literature and Medicine on the cultural collision between gender and baldness, a project that became a way for me to process the extraordinary changes that had occurred in my body image during those months of treatment.
Even as I adjusted to the daily rhythms of the ‘gamma knife’ in the radiotherapy halls of Indiana University Hospital, I was able to return to activities with which I have always associated my creative self. In particular, I like to cook. The further in time I got from the Taxol chemo, which had made my joints unnaturally arthritic, I began to look at back issues of Bon Appetit and started trying out new recipes. I was also able to return to the tennis court. Though I was physically weak, I took delight in being able to move again, to exert a kind of mastery over my atrophying muscles. Reuniting with favorite pastimes carried a sense of new exploration with them—a feeling that derives from summoning our creative resources. Most important of all, I was able to pull out my paint box of words and use them in a way that could potentially help others suffering from similar afflictions. I suspect that some people have difficulty imagining how writing provides a rich avenue for creativity, but I have always considered myself a painter of words, where style and voice are as crucial as context and content to the success of a piece of writing.
Being able to describe my illness experience—a hazardous trip to an unfamiliar country in Arthur Frank’s reckoning—ultimately allowed me to reassemble pieces of a fractured self and to paddle beyond the ever-present worry associated with having had two unrelated cancers. As an academic with a bent toward self-examination, I was fortunate to be able to seek transcendence through a satisfying expository process. That process of re-assembling the self became an artistic endeavor, one that, thanks to good health care and advanced research skills, helped me rediscover my creative center of gravity.
Jane E. Schultz is a professor of English and the director of literature at IUPUI.