sally battled breast cancer using pen and paper

Posted on Thursday, July 19, 2012

According to U.S. breast cancer research found on, “about 1 in 8 U.S. women (just under 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.”  Ironically, eight is approximately the same number of women breast cancer survivor Sally leads in her weekend writing group sessions.  Sally was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003.  After a bilateral mastectomy, Sally recognized she had something that no one could take away from her – she had words to share, a story to tell.  Sally realized she needed to write.  This courageous rowdy prisoner began writing based on short twenty-minute prompts at the Stanford Cancer Institute.  “It certainly helps to verbalize what you’re feeling,” she says, appreciating the power of writing still to this day.  As a cancer survivor, armed with pen and paper, she says,


 You don’t have to have an illness, but it’s really encouraging to get it out – to write about your experience.  It’s more important than people realize or understand.  The more I write, the more I realize how important writing is in my life.


There is a magical shift that occurs when one writes purely and from the heart.  Styles of writing can vary from journaling to creative writing or poetry.  For Sally, she doesn’t consider herself a real storyteller.  She allows “whatever comes out” to surprise her audience and herself.  “Some people can weave a tale, and I find that difficult.  I like writing incidents about my past.”  As a more daring writer, this rowdy prisoner reflects on the words spoken by a teacher, who once said,


It’s ok to show your anger.  Your reader wants to read that.


This wonderfully exposes Sally’s message – If you are angry, write anger.  If you are sad, write teardrops.  When you are joyful, the page will fill with rainbows soon enough.  In the meantime, do not judge or form what you think you should write.  Be honest.  Shock yourself.  Do not worry about grammar and punctuation, but rather sincere content.  There are words inside ready to leap onto the page; ink is aching to smear inspiration.  This rowdy prisoner’s main point is not necessarily about focusing on what the words say, but that you are saying something, anything.  Be raw.  So many times, we are afraid to share our deepest thoughts even to ourselves, but as we trust and build confidence, we begin to see a nicely polished mirror with a beautiful image reflected.


Sally, who is much more confident with her writing, mentions that she would like to personally improve and to teach others about “stepping out of one’s ego, one’s own zone, so to speak and listening to others.”  In a world that shares so much via the web, ironically, many of us have become much more guarded.  What kind of shift might we see if we did something for someone else in our moments of self-absorption?  How might we feel if we wrote a friend or relative a letter during bouts of loneliness?  Sally’s goal is profound.  It sounds easy, but challenges each of us to step out of our world.  She also recognizes that it is a small world after all.


 I had one story published in the Story Circle Network Magazine – it was a small one about angels in my life.  A woman in New Jersey read it and she sent me her book she wrote when she had breast cancer.


Together, in their pain and in their triumph, two women found a connection.  Writing forms bonds.  Writing transforms the body, mind and spirit.  In a health study from the article “Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing” found in the Advance in Psychiatric Treatment newsletter, “participants who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings reported significant benefits in both objectively assessed and self-reported physical health 4 months later, with less frequent visits to the health center.”  So why write?  Write to save your life.  Write to discover yourself.  Write to make a friend.


Sally writes for her grandchildren.  A combination of working with shyness and healing, her ultimate reason for taking writing classes was to write down her story for her grandchildren.  She jokes, “Someday, even if right now they are not interested, they’ll want to know who I was and what my thoughts were.”  Perhaps Sally’s book will touch her grandchildren, perhaps it will impact the eight other women in her tight-knit writing group, or perhaps it will even reach millions of breast cancer survivors who are inspired to share their stories too.  After all, there is no sickness that can take away the innermost words from anyone.


Want to learn more about the longer-term benefits of expressive writing? 


Health Outcomes

  • Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved lung function
  • Improved liver function
  • Fewer days in hospital
  • Improved mood/affect
  • Feeling of greater psychological well-being
  • Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations
  • Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms


Social and Behavioral Outcomes

  • Reduced absenteeism from work
  • Quicker re-employment after job loss
  • Improved working memory
  • Improved sporting performance
  • Higher students’ grade point average
  • Altered social and linguistic behavior


Source: “Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing” article in the Advance in Psychiatric Treatment newsletter


feature image, Pink, provided by Joy StClaire


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