Cancer Reflecting and Journaling by Guest Blogger Mary Ladd
HumanKind Box is excited to present its first Guest Blogger, Mary Ladd. In this piece Mary shares her personal story and discusses the benefits of journaling through crisis, particularly cancer, but also during the pandemic.
Cancer Reflecting and Journaling by Mary Ladd
Cancer does terrible things to our brains and bodies. When my gynecologist told me a breast lump was “probably nothing,” insurance costs, bureaucratic headaches plus apathy meant I put off getting a second opinion. However, I soon felt haunted when Angelina Jolie told the world about her decision to get a prophylactic double mastectomy after finding out she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation.
My aggressive triple negative breast cancer and BRCA1 gene mutation led to eight infections, 69 blood tests, one surgeon crush, 22 chemotherapy rounds, one DIEP mastectomy and a hysterectomy, which brought on insta-menopause. Life with cancer was absurd, sad, funny and tiring and included withered sexuality, memory loss, dry eyes, and depression.
I found staying home and pausing my normal hustle bustle routine during treatment for triple negative breast cancer made me restless while bringing on grief, anxiety and stress. Because I was by myself a lot, and waking up in the middle of the night, it meant the hamster wheel in my brain was often running, running, running on overdrive as I worried about bills, the possible causes of my cancer, while feeling as if the “pre-cancer” me would never return, that my vivacious and sparkly outlook would remain a distant memory.
In the U.S., it’s not easy to acknowledge and talk about death, sickness, grief and loss. But it’s worth talking and writing about what happens to each of us. Studies show that writing about thoughts and feelings in the face of unexpected events such as a cancer diagnosis can help alleviate anxiety and stress. I am a writer, so soon started channeling my frustrations and sorrows by writing things down—my professional writing assignments had until this point focused mainly on chefs, food, restaurants and travel, so the muscle memory on how to scribble out questions and thoughts was reactivated. Using my notebook and laptop to track treatment, questions and symptoms in turn helped me feel better. Sometimes it also felt like I was barfing up anything and everything that happened to me, which was a therapeutic and wonderful release.
I did try and plan for an end date to my cancer treatment but as the weeks went on and I got to know other cancer patients, I realized that an end date can be something of a moving target. Being still with my thoughts also set me up to think about past loves and friendships, and the ways things went wrong. It’s easy to blame myself, but with the support of friends and an ongoing commitment to take better care, I realized that I am not horrible, but rather flawed and trying to do the best I can with what I have.
Don Asmussen is a pal and fellow cancer patient. Fans know him as the creator of the San Francisco Chronicle feature "Bad Reporter," and his books, jokes and cartoons always makes me laugh—I loved that he made fun of me going bald instead of pitying me. We collaborated on a book called The Wig Diaries, an irreverent compilation of my essays. From my sofa-office or bed-office (“boffice”), I wrote about having the hots for my surgeon, embarrassing bathroom bouts, oozing body parts, dried up desiccated body parts (hello, early menopause!) and what it’s like to go to the hot springs without a nipple (but a whole lot of bodily scars). Chemo, surgeries, side effects and yes, sorrows all went on the page.
As soon as the pandemic closed businesses, schools, bars and restaurants, I again felt helpless and wanted a way to document and make sense of things. Many of my friends and students were grappling with pent up emotions and experiences without a creative outlet. With the help of a designer friend, I published Write it Down: Coronavirus Writing Prompts, and started using the book’s 186 short writing exercises in my online classes. No writing experience is needed for this one.
The prompt categories are fun, interesting and meaningful:
All the Feels
You Look Good!
A fellow cancer survivor emailed me to share about how the book helped her: “I appreciate the process. I’ve been struggling with journaling ever since I had kids and got busy, but using writing prompts works really well for me. I think this journal is the beginning of a new trend for me. Thank you, Mary. I remember why I love to write.”
Finding things to love is extra important when we are sick, right? I love seeing the ways getting words on to the page helps patients but also anyone scrambling for a way to make sense of 2020.
Mary Ladd teaches online writing classes at The Writers Grotto and has written for Playboy, Time Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. She collaborated with Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations and plans dance parties for Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS), a support group for young people living with breast cancer. The Wig Diaries is available at Green Apple Books and other independent bookstores, as well as on Amazon, and during Pinktober, a portion of Wig Diaries book sales will go to Breast Cancer Action. Write it Down can be purchased at Barnes & Noble and via many ebook stores. You can find Mary’s upcoming events, classes and book information at maryladd.com.