Book Review - February 17, 2017

The Healing Power of Writing About Cancer

By Adam Buffery

In her recent book, Reading & Writing Cancer: How Words Heal, Susan Gubar explores the various ways reading and writing about cancer can be a valuable, often therapeutic, tool for patients with cancer. Whether it’s writing a memoir, engaging in expressive or free writing, or simply jotting down notes or keeping a journal related to one’s arduous cancer journey, Gubar highlights the power and benefit of engaging with illness on the page.

In the preface to her book, Gubar says, “I believe that engagement with cancer literature and art can alleviate the loneliness of the disease while enhancing our comprehension of how to grapple with it. These convictions arose from recent and not so recent personal experiences.”

Chopped up into 4 succinctly themed chapters, Gubar jumps back and forth between her personal experience with ovarian cancer and how she deals with it through writing and blogging, and the general history of cancer in literature and in art. Gubar orchestrates a thorough account of the theme of cancer found in art, offering an array of familiar names, and some unknown names, to illustrate just how expansive the history of cancer-related artwork is.

Her main point, however, is the healing nature of dealing with cancer through the written word, through reading as well as writing, as she aptly quotes Virginia Woolf, who said, “in illness words seem to possess a mystic quality.”

Gubar sees writing as a tool of self-discovery and a means to dive deeper into oneself while coping with a cancer diagnosis, treatment, and posttreatment life. She emphasizes that writing “provides a way not necessarily to master disaster, but to comprehend and accept or contend with it,” and views writing as providing relief from the overwhelming aspects of dealing with cancer. Instead of obsessing over a new scar, a “gift” of treatment, one can obsess over word-play to communicate one’s inner world effectively, passionately, and productively, she suggests.

For Gubar, writing about cancer is not so much a distraction from the “disaster” of a cancer diagnosis but rather a thoroughly rewarding and meaningful way to deconstruct all you, the patient, are feeling and going through, in an effort to construct a better you.

Since writing is cheap, easy to do, and doesn’t require physical exertion, it “remains one of the few productive activities available to many cancer patients,” she observes. When you find that your family, friends, and colleagues have reached their listening limits about your bout with cancer, you can find solace in the idea that you can still open yourself up in your writing, a mode of expression that grants you unlimited freedom and relieves you of potential judgment from others.

Reading & Writing Cancer features many great artists and works of art on the subject of cancer, from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Akira Kurosawa’s own rendition, “Ikiru,” to the works of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, J.M. Coetzee, and many more. Even the hit show “Breaking Bad” gets a tip of the hat.

Gubar also gives many examples of memoirs of patients with cancer. She sometimes jumps into the general, noting at the beginning of Chapter 4, “Sublime Artistry,” that “literature thrives on miseries, conflicts, misunderstandings, blighted alternatives, and thwarted hopes,” something that Hollywood, with its patented upbeat Hollywood ending, has been fighting against for some time. It’s an interesting perspective, no doubt reflecting the hope of encouraging patients with cancer to feel confident in their writings and in their descriptions of their disastrous conditions: the nature of good literature is on their side, she says. If nothing else, their struggle may strike the sinews of good storytelling.

For example, Matt Freedman, a patient with cancer who could not speak and could only swallow liquids, used writing to help him get through his ordeal. Where Matt was saddled with debilitating physical limitations, he opened his world up to new activities in the form of writing by keeping notes and a journal. When one door closes, another one opens.

These stories, some famous, some not, serve to offer bits of empathy and encouragement, as the stories inform the reader that she (or he) is not alone in her fight with cancer, and not alone in trying to turn the throws of cancer into words on a page. Gubar agrees with C.S. Lewis that “we read to know we are not alone,” and views the act of writing in much the same way.

Overall, Gubar offers an astounding scope by focusing on memoirs and on classic feats of literature, each offering different lenses as personal lessons, examples of how to read and write about cancer, or more to the point, how to deal with cancer.

This book serves as a tour de force of empathy in action, providing a clear path where there may be much confusion and darkness, and pen and paper where there may be an empty outstretched hand.

You may also want to check out Susan Gubar’s New York Times blog “Living With Cancer” at well.blogs.nytimes.com/author/susan-gubar/?_r=0. Some of her blog titles include “More Life to Be Lived,” “The Anger of Cancer,” “An Artist Takes on Cancer,” and “Living With Cancer: Being Erased.”

Related Articles
Book Review - December 23, 2015

A Radiation Oncologist’s Personal Journey through Cancer Emerges as a Road Map for Patients

Book Review - October 13, 2015

A Rehabilitation Expert and Cancer Survivor Offers Healing Inspiration