hands with a pen to paper Advice

by Erin Michaela Sweeney June 17, 2019

Dear Hope: Alive with the Meaning of Storytelling

The notion of cancer is not unusual. We’ve all heard the stories of the battles, the survivors, and the ones who died from cancer or its complications. Once we receive our diagnosis, however, cancer becomes unique.

Our Cancer, Our Life

Sometimes we have a hard time figuring out how cancer fits into our lives, especially at the beginning.
When you’re first diagnosed, cancer can invade your mind. Some people dive into internet research, making the cancer an obsession. Others do their best to ignore the potential complications to everyday life. I had a weekend to get my affairs in order before entering a local hospital for around-the-clock chemo. At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual it was to avoid agonizing over treatment options for weeks or months, much less the watch-and-wait approach for many chronic cancers. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the quick transition from diagnosis to treatment.
Cancer treatments can be grueling. During the treatment phase, you probably focus on one appointment at a time. When things get rough, maybe you take it hour by hour. At my low point, I once watched the second hand on the hospital room wall clock tick from the top, around the face and back to the 12, which triggered the minute hand to tock forward. The ticking clock led me to doze. Distractions and sleep can be good companions.

Beyond Happy

As you end treatments — or watch and wait — you might rethink your bucket list. Maybe you want to change your priorities. If you want to pursue happiness, that’s great, but Emily Esfahani Smith would ask you to go beyond happy. In her 2017 TED talk called “There’s More To Life Than Being Happy,” she lays out four pillars for a meaningful life:
  1. Belonging
  2. Purpose
  3. Transcendence
  4. Storytelling
Feel free to read my world-of-cancer takes on three of the pillars via the links above.
Smith says the fourth pillar — storytelling — is “the story you tell yourself about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity…You can edit, interpret and retell your story, even as you’re constrained by the facts.”
I worked in publishing as an editor for 20 years, so I’m all about improving the story. If that means revise, then revise. Give it a try with this story practice.

My Cancer Story Practice

Respond to these prompts.
(Try not to sneak a peek below the prompts.)
  1. Year of diagnosis?
  2. Favorite color?
  3. First pet’s name?
  4. Current pet’s name? (If same or none, put “Smith”)
  5. Symptom as a verb. (For example, “vomit”)
  6. Another symptom as a verb.
  7. Cancer medication or treatment you’ve had. (If none, put “anxiety”)
  8. Body part.
  9. Waiting room object, plural.
  10. Exercise activity as a verb.
  11. Adverb. (Usually ends in an “-ly”)
  12. Favorite TV show?
  13. Name a type of dance.
  14. Dance move, plural.
  15. Worst symptom as a verb + “ing.” (If none, put “dreading”)
  16. Small animal, plural.
  17. Favorite number.
  18. Body part. (Different from 8)
Insert your 18 answers below where indicated.
In ___{1}___ someone in a/an ___{2}___ coat said I was exposed to ___{3}___ - ___{4}___. It turned me into a superhero!
I suddenly could ___{5}___ and ___{6}___ on the bad guys. I had to apply ___{7}___ to my ___{8}___ twice a day to keep my new superhero skills powered up. They warned me of side effects including ___{9}___ that ___{10}___ ___{11}___.
Whenever I watch ___{12}___, the good-guy agents notify me in code that it’s time to put on my ___{13}___ outfit. That’s my superhero costume. After I do seventeen ___{14}___, I’m ready.
My secret weapon is ___{15}___, which turns the bad guys into ___{16}___. I put them in a sharps container and send them to the good guys.
I go back every ___{17}___ years and stick out my ___{18}___ to have the people in coats check to be sure I’m still a superhero.
OK, so I tricked you into transforming your story. All in good fun to make a serious point.
Cancer cannot be your whole world. Please don’t live life with cancer as your identity. Edit your story so you can begin to create a better life, full of meaning.
Read more about Erin at ErinMichaelaSweeney.com
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