The day my mother gave me a journal to help me cope with my grandmother’s suicide undoubtedly changed my life forever. That seemingly benign gesture, when I was ten years old, laid the groundwork for my life as a writer. Following this continuum, and after a serious health crisis, I made a decision which went against my character. I accomplished something I never thought I would be able to do.
My cancer journey began in mid-2001 when I was called back to the hospital for a repeat annual mammogram. Eventually, I was 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 a plane to Los Angeles and after enduring all the necessary tests, Dr. Silverstein presented my options. I could 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 is to ask what he’d suggest for his own wife. Because of his answer, I opted for a mastectomy and reconstruction.
A few days following my surgery while in California, I sat in a hospital bed surrounded by orchids sent from loved ones 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 had hit hard. When my surgeon said he would soon remove the corset-like bandage tightened around my chest, I feared seeing what lie beneath. What would be 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 natural-born “fixer,” had a difficult time watching me navigate through this intense physical and emotional pain. He nestled up close to me 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 a 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 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. 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 turbulent times, from my own adolescence, to difficult pregnancies and finally during cancer. To meet the requirements of my graduate work, I decided to gather my journal entries, reflections and poems written during my post-operative recovery and shape them into a book.
The collection chronicled my breast cancer journey and the physical and mental anguish associated with it. My initial instinct was to prepare this document for my family to help them understand my passion for writing and also how strongly I felt about the healing power of journaling. I wanted to inspire them to write through their own turbulent times as well.
After returning home to Florida and before heading to Kentucky to begin my first brief-residency weekend, the dreadful 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 writing.
In relation to 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 our pages.
It took the full two years of the program for me to pull together the information and journal entries a book that my mentor suggested I publish. The surprising part is that it took eight more 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. But in the end, after speaking with my mentor and some colleagues, it was decided that the process would be cathartic and more importantly, beneficial for others. Even my own two daughters might one day have to face the torment of possibly being affected by cancer.
My emotions were raw and in addition to prose and journal entries, the book includes poems composed during my journey. Here’s a sample:
To My Daughters
You were the first I thought of
when diagnosed with what
strikes one in eight women.
It was too soon to leave you,
but I thought it a good sign
that none of us were born
under its pestilent zodiac.
I stared at the stars and wished
upon each one that you’d never
wake up as I did this morning
to one real breast and one fake one;
but that the memories you carry
will be only sweet ones, and then
I remembered you had your early traumas
of being born too soon, and losing
a beloved grandpa too young. I have
this urge to show you the scars
on the same breasts you both cuddled
as babies, but then I wonder why
you’d want to see my imperfections
and perhaps your destiny. I cave in
and show you anyway, hoping you learn
to eat well and visit your doctors, but then
I wonder if it really matters, as I remember
what your grandpa Umpie used to say,
“When your time’s up, it’s up.”
May he always watch over you.
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. Years later, after being diagnosed with my cancer diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma, I decided to return to school for my doctorate. My research focused on the healing power of writing. Out of my studies evolved my next book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life which helps others with their own journey. It also reminds us all to be live in the moment and be grateful because we never know what tomorrow will bring. These sentiments have saved my life and I hope the lives of others.
- Diana Raab, PhD
Diana Raab, MFA, PhD is an award-winning author, speaker, educator and survivor. She’s the author of 9 books. Her newest book is Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Her website is: dianaraab.com