Pawleys Island, South Carolina, United States
Photography by Elena Levitskaya, RN
It started simply enough. Soon after my diagnosis, a friend and fellow breast cancer survivor counseled me about protecting a space for healing. We discussed the need to create that delicate balance of keeping a network of friends and family informed along the way, while giving oneself the permission to engage selectively. My full to overflowing life had hit the pause button at diagnosis, and I didn’t want to just cut off from clients, colleagues, and friends. I needed their words of calm wisdom and hopeful encouragement; I needed the protective grace of their prayers. Yet I didn’t have it in me to have individual conversations, for weeks on end. So, my primary form of contact happened via emails distributed to a wide-ranging group.
My first email confirmed to my supporters the reality of the cancer diagnosis. Unsolicited, dozens of emails rich with information, resources, and helpful offerings returned my way. In responding to these people, more personal exchanges began. I found myself sharing the specifics of how I was preparing for this major life transition. Just after surgery, my next group email was harder to write. It explained that the cancer had spread to nodes, and this would be a bigger deal than anticipated. I also felt compelled to describe the larger experience from the inside out: the procedures I underwent, the slow motion of time enabling me to be more present, and the extraordinary but ordinary hospital caregivers who moved me to laugh and rejoice about being among the living. Subsequently, I wrote several more emails describing how I determined a course of action and how, treatment by treatment, my life was evolving.
Over the months, the purpose of my writing broadened and shifted; it was not merely to communicate, update, and record. I discovered that I needed to reassure supporters and express my huge gratitude for their part in my healing process. Through their queries and responses, I also felt invited to risk more and let them share my experience with others fighting cancer. Over many months, when chemotherapy left me unable to voice coherent thoughts or refer to things by their rightful names or remember a sequence of details, some of my frustration was relieved when I could write a sensible sentence. Even if it took an hour to compose a paragraph, often filled with misspellings and words typed backwards, I continued to write. It gave me hope that normal cognitive functioning might return. Was the writing actually exercising my brain physiology along with exorcising the demons of my fears?
Finding an expressive outlet for my mind’s churn became a source of healing balm. What started as a routine to ground me while my world was swirling began to help clarify my thinking. It also made the experiences real, no denying—I had to be fully present to witness and record. I didn’t re-read my entries as I went through my days; focusing on present tense contented me. I remembered from my early career’s research (on how executives learn from developmental experiences) that most people resist the process of regular journaling. The candor that one penned about taking on something new—about the mistakes made, about what was uncomfortable, about claiming the feelings usually disowned—could actually intensify the frustration involved in going against the grain. Those who stayed with the journaling, however, plumbed the patterns as they experimented with their actions and eventually excelled in learning how to enable their own change.
From the outpouring in my journals, I kept a list of events, surprises, insights, or challenges that were representative and would comprise the body of my next summary email. Many readers asked permission to forward these emails to friends, neighbors, church members—those facing cancer or various hardships. Timely words resonated with their hidden or not-so-hidden struggles. Eventually, the exchanges themselves began to take on a life of their own. Readers I didn’t even know offered their own stories and described the rippling impacts of mine. Some shared survivor lessons. Some wrote to me about their need for courage, hope, determination, joy. Others told me they were living more mindfully as a result of my writing, examining anew their choices and the busy pace of their days. I was truly humbled. What I was putting out there as documentation, as a glimpse into my cocoon, became something more like a collective healing for my readers.
Throughout my chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and the waiting periods after my various biopsies, the written exchanges became life-giving for me. It became my work, in a way, something I could do, when I was grieving all the things I could no longer do. My email responders became a supportive community for me to interact with, which was especially useful when my blood counts plummeted and I stayed out of germs’ way. The responses blessed me with the chance to see my experience in even more depth, as reflected through the eyes and lives of others. I learned to sit with my creative process and listen, weaving and interpreting moments that enabled healing. Writing became a way to maneuver through moments of physical, mental, and spiritual discomforts, allowing me to take on the role of an observer as well as a surrendering patient. By re-enacting my experiences on paper, I tapped into real pain and fear, while being graced with the flow of passing time, which ultimately shifted my point of view.
My journey to uncover meaning in the midst of chaos was not evident every day. I wrote. It helped. I was not even conscious of the evolution of my writing until some months into my ordeal. From the start, however, writing created an opening in me and freed my creative voice. It allowed me to diligently accept and process moments that were both terrible and transforming. Writing taught me to live mindfully, becoming the key to my healing and my incentive to survive.
AMY D. WEBB, PhD has served for over two decades as a psychologist and executive coach, consulting to organizations and their top leaders about developing through change. She coaches leaders in the US and abroad on the nature of transitions and ways to lead oneself and others through them. She specializes in assessing and unleashing the potential of individuals to grow amid challenges, and to live into a larger life. From her professional work, academic training, life experience, and deep faith, she found a repertoire to inspire her own physical, mental, and spiritual healing in the continuing transition that cancer presents. She lives in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.
About the photographer
ELENA LEVITSKAYA, RN is the photographer responsible for the images on the cover page and on this page. She has been a Critical Care/PACU RN for the last 15 years. Photography has been one of her creative outlets for over 10 years. She mainly explores nature as an ever present and alive subject in connection with human perception and emotional responses to natural balance and harmony.