Reading & Writing Cancer- A Book Review

I recently finished “Reading & Writing Cancer: How Words Heal” written by Susan Gubar.

First, I’d like to call attention to this amazing woman for while we may differ on some opinions, she has opened up to share her life with the world in the hopes that she can help people who find themselves reeling from a cancer diagnosis. She also found a method of healing that many may scoff at, but she feels it should be shared with the world. This is what kept me reading even as she painted what seemed a dark picture of cancer and provided numerous examples of people who had passed.

Susan Gubar has done a study into the diaries, memoirs, short stories, and novels as well as art, movies, TV, and blogs and she discusses how they play a major role today in shaping public understanding of various cancers. It’s a message that I keep hearing over and over, how media influences our thinking, actions, and outcomes. The picture painted for cancer is often one of despair. I am not discounting the depths of despair that can be reached as one struggles with cancer; however the meaning we give to something can greatly affect its impact on us.

Ms. Gubar is helping people find their power at a time when they desperately need to feel some control, some certainty in their life. She’s also doing it at a point in her life when her doctor’s predicted she’d be dead. She attributes this to an experimental treatment and writing. I, after reading the book, attribute it to finding something she could be believe in. This woman entered into a clinical study where it could help or kill her and coupled with writing (the ability to distract herself away from her failing body) and she has stabilized, and as of 2017, alive 5 years after doctors predicted her demise.

She is a woman who lives with cancer, admits traditional therapy makes her miserable, and she is “allergic to alternative procedures in a quirky, non-rational ground”…. But she feels writing has saved her. This is a person who could not find comfort or help from either side of the issue and instead she has blazed her own path. I admit to finding comfort in this same path. Writing is something I would recommend to those who find themselves chronically ill whether it is with cancer or some sort of autoimmune disease. Writing helps us chase down the thoughts that float around in our head and it can help us become aware or release feelings we were unaware of having.

There has been research done in this field and one study by James W Pennebaker found that people who wrote their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a trauma evidenced an impressive drop in illness visits after the study (compared to other groups who did not partake in Expressive Writing).

If illness can manifest itself due to repressed feelings and emotions, and this shouldn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility given all of our other discoveries, then expressive writing can help to move this energy outside of us. It can also help with the trauma experienced from being diagnosed and undergoing treatment. As Gubar states it allows you to get the energy out so you need not utilize more primitive methods such as denial, rage, or depression.

Susan’s book helps you learn how to use words to heal, with a disclaimer. “Obviously, writing cannot cure patients, but it facilitates the process of repairing the damages done. Words have the power to mend spirit’s abiding within damaged or incurable bodies”. If you’ve never really written or have a hard time writing, then this book could help you. If you are at a place in your path where you have not made peace with cancer, where you’re still reeling and looking for hope, well, this book does give it, but there is a lot of loss and talk of how cancer is incurable.

For me by the end I felt that I had watched her grow. This is a woman who does not like the positive thinking revolution. In the book she mentions the “whitewashing” of cancer. I found myself at a loss at this point as I have not experienced this positivity in cancer. Normally it is the opposite where people make me feel like I am dying. I do, however, believe she is in part referring to the commercialization of cancer – with “walk for the cure” and how we try to remain upbeat for families and friends, though this is as much for them as it is for us.

We should thank Susan Gubar for adding to the library of cancer literature. At a minimum it provides a history of cancer portrayal in the arts. It is more than that though. This book can help a person take control of the story that is being written in their life. It can help those who are looking to share their own insights into the disease by providing some of her experience as a scholar and a blogger.

For me, it helped me see the more clearly the overall picture that is portrayed of cancer and what about it I would like to change.

I thank you Susan Gubar.

You can find Susan Gubar’s blog here: https://www.nytimes.com/column/living-with-cancer


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