What happens when women are handed the diagnosis of breast cancer? For many, there's shock. They may shoulder the burden alone, depressed, and afraid. Like author Sharon Bray, they may be so used to pleasing and caring for others before themselves, that they initially may not process the gravity of the situation.
Bray "cheerily" received her cancer diagnosis from her doctor one day. But the next day when talking with her husband, it hit her full force:
"John," I called to my husband. "He said carcinoma, didn't he?"
My husband nodded.
"That's cancer," I exclaimed, my eyes wide with fear and sudden understanding.
John nodded again, "Yes, that's cancer."
This book really hit home with me. No, I've never had breast cancer. But I've been close to many women who have. After four of my female coworkers were diagnosed with the insidious disease, two died and two survived. One of the survivors eventually had a relapse and died seven years later. Some of my office colleagues and I even wondered whether office stress was contributing to this cancer prevalence. Was there something in the air?
My best friend Lis survived and passed the five-year mark, but she knows she's never completely out of the woods. Another friend, Toni, experienced a reoccurrence of breast cancer after six years. She now is dealing with chemo and hair loss a second time.
Statistics show that the incidence of breast cancer in women has increased from one in twenty in 1960 to one in eight today. Every three minutes, a woman in the United States is diagnosed. Annually, about 40,000 women are expected to die from this disease. But those are statistics. It seems different when those involved are our sisters, mothers, wives, daughters and friends.
What can we do about this killer? I did what I could for my friends, including participating in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on blustery, cold mornings and raising money by walking sixty miles during the Avon 3-Day Walk (one day in unrelenting rain). It was hard to complain about my blisters or discomfort when I saw a woman teetering along on a prosthetic leg, her body ravaged by cancer but her determination unstoppable. Sometimes along with others, I take meals to women too weak to cook while undergoing treatment. Or we just sit and talk. But is there anything more we can do?
Sharon Bray shares her journey of becoming a writing group leader for women with breast cancer. She says, "Writing does not cure cancer, but it helps to heal the wounded spirit." Her stories about these fragile women are poignant, but powerful. She explains the challenge of fostering a safe, nurturing environment so the members of her group were comfortable exploring deep feelings. In some cases, the women had been handed a death sentence.
The author is quick to point out that "writing together has therapeutic benefits, but a writing group is not a therapy group." The main focus is in writing about their experiences with breast cancer and how it affects their lives. The shared writing gives the women some degree of power and control over their disease. For centuries women (and men) have written in personal journals, alone. But there is something very different about writing with others, especially when there is a shared hurt or dilemma. A bond is formed, and individuals are no longer isolated. They comfort each other, celebrate each other, and love each other through everything.
Bray has done her homework. Not only does she relate her own experience and that of her writing group participants, but she presents documented research about such things as scriptotherapy, which allows people "to say the unsayable, opening up our buried pain and emotions, and to heal."
The poems and short prose woven throughout this book are insightful, touching gifts from the writing group members to readers. Topics other than breast cancer sometimes bubble to the surface—previously buried emotions or events, lost memories or dreams never to be fulfilled. Amidst the anger and tears and profound spiritual moments, there are also laughter and jokes.
Bray, a gifted author with a Ph.D. in applied psychology, skillfully accomplished a beautiful balance in her book—her vulnerability as a breast cancer survivor with the professional attributes of a good writing group leader. She offers the reader a poignant glimpse into lives touched by breast cancer, displays the beautiful art created by writing group members, and even provides a step-by-step guide to forming a writing group. She backs it all up with credentialed research from other psychiatric specialists. It's evident in A Healing Journey that through Bray's own cancer experience and reaching out to others through the writing group, she bloomed magnificently as a writer.
This book profoundly touched me, and I will share it with friends who have fought breast cancer. Bray shows us that, although difficult, it is better to face our fears head-on, and that it is easier to deal with them from within a supportive group rather than going it alone.
Sharon Bray is a writer, educator, founder and director of Wellspring Writers, and a Board member of Amherst Writers and Artists, Amherst, MA. She has written a children's book, poetry, memoir, articles on instruction and career/life choice issues, and on writing as a healing experience. She leads a variety of writing workshops in the San Francisco Bay area each year. Sharon has a doctorate in applied psychology from the University of Toronto and completed the Writers' Program in Literary Fiction through the University of Washington. You can learn more about the author on her website.
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