Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Writing for Your Life

A Journal Writing Workshop for Cancer Survivors

I am a huge proponent of journal writing; I’ve been doing it since 1992. So when I was diagnosed with leukemia in December 2003, I knew my journal would be my constant companion. I recorded information and daily events, processed my emotions, and explored my past, in particular, how holding on to old hurts and resentments may have contributed to my illness.

After four rounds of high-dose chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, I was on the road to recovery. In January 2008, I was unemployed for two weeks and spent much of that time revising the manuscript for my book, Rebirth: A Leukemia Survivor’s Journal of Healing during Chemotherapy, Bone Marrow Transplant, and Recovery. I had also recently become a volunteer with the New York City chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). As I was working on my book, it hit me that perhaps I could implement a journal writing workshop for cancer patients. Journaling had been an effective tool in my healing arsenal, so, I thought why not share it with others?

Inspired, I began to jot down ideas and within a few hours had produced an outline of a program I thought could be quite effective. A couple months later, I presented a workshop proposal to Meg Harrison, Patient Services Manager, at the LLS’s NYC chapter. She thought it was a great idea, but nothing transpired from that encounter.

My belief never waivered that one day the workshop would become a reality. So later that year, I approached Renee Stein Goetz, a social worker whom I knew from my time being treated for leukemia at Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC), to see if anyone there might be interested in a journal writing workshop. I met with Renee, and in 2009 conducted two workshops at HUMC, one with a breast cancer survivor group (in January) and the second with a stem cell transplant survivor group (in May).

These were actually more like discussions as opposed to workshops. In the breast cancer group, we talked about the journaling process and different ways to journal. They were an inquisitive bunch who contributed many ideas that sparked much lively conversation. The stem cell transplant group was more subdued, yet attentive. They had the opportunity to complete one writing exercise, and most particpants shared with the group what they'd written.

These two journaling programs made me realize more time would be necessary to hold an effective journal writing workshop, so I made some adjustments. Then in August 2009, I received a call from Meg asking me if I was still interested in conducting my journaling workshop. Of course, I was! So now, two years after envisioning it, my first workshop series commences on January 13, 2010.

I decided to name the workshop Writing for Your Life, because upon reflection of my own life—even before cancer—I’d literally been writing for my life: planning and strategizing goals, processing emotions, and recording events, etc.The goal of Writing for Your Life is to use writing as a means to empower the cancer patient/survivor during diagnosis, treatment, and recovery by:

1.) Coming to terms with your illness

2.) Exploring your emotional life and any difficult issues with which you may be struggling

3.) Formulating ideas for living fully in the present, while fighting cancer

4.) Devising strategies that will aid in the healing of mind, body, and spirit

5.) Clarifying and outlining your hopes for the future

Workshop details:
5 Sessions on Wednesday evenings
• January 13 and 27
• February 10 and 24
• March 10

Time: 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
475 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10016

Although this workshop is held at the LLS office, it is open to all cancer survivors. If you, or anyone you know, may be interested, please contact Maria Feeney at the LLS at 212-376-4770 or If you have specific questions, you may contact me at

Friday, December 04, 2009

Check out Dr. Regina Huelsenbeck's blog: Rituals of Healing

Rebirth: A Leukemia Survivor's Journal of Healing during Chemotherapy, Bone Marrow Transplant, and Recovery is featured on Dr. Huelsenbeck's blog. She is a cancer survivor; at age 19 she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Her cancer experience led her to pursue a career in psycho-oncology/therapy.

Please take a moment to visit not only her blog, but her entire site. It is filled with information, healing resources, and inspiration.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Congratulations. You did it!

‘Congratulations. You did it!’ read the silver balloon I carried out of Dr. Goldberg’s office today. I had just completed my five-year oncology follow-up. My CBC results looked great—white blood cell, red blood cell, and platelet counts all within the normal ranges. I am now able to get life insurance; federal law guarantees that cancer survivors cannot be discriminated against when looking for life insurance after 5 years of being cancer-free. In a few days, the proof will arrive in the mail in the form of the letter Dr. Goldberg was dictating when I left. Best of all, I can now officially declare: I am cured!

A swirl of emotions churned inside of me as I took that last walk down the familiar hallway and out the Cancer Center's door. Before I left the examining room, I gave Dr. Goldberg a signed copy of Rebirth and told him how much I appreciated everything he'd done for me and how blessed I am to have had him as my doctor. He was always honest with me, yet compassionate; he listened to and answered all my questions without ever getting defensive or impatient; over the years, he answered every e-mail I sent to him, whether it was a question about my health or my book; and he wrote the foreword to Rebirth. I gave him two big hugs and thanked him. “You’re welcome,” he replied; then added, “Days like today are why we do what we do.” I’m a success story. Hell, I’m a miracle.

I walked out with Renee, a social worker at HUMC whom I’ve gotten to know well over the past year, as I’ve been meeting with patients preparing for or going through stem cell/bone marrow transplantation and trying to get my journal writing workshop for cancer patients started. As we talked, tears welled up in my eyes and the words caught in my throat. I’ve waited so long for this day to come, and yet the experience doesn’t feel all that far in the past. I can’t even explain why I was tearing up except, perhaps, I could finally, at last, breathe an enormous sigh of relief—I'd made it to that coveted five-year mark.

Before I left the hospital, I went to the Stem Cell Transplant Center and spent some time with two brave women—both mothers, both struggling through complications after stem cell transplantation. I listened, shared parts of my story that may prove helpful to them, and gave encouragement. Both were grateful for my having spent some time with them; for patients, it gives so much hope to see someone who has been where they are and is now on the other side of cancer. (I definitely felt that way back in 2004 when I spoke with those who were several years cancer-free.) And these interactions, meeting these survivors are just as beneficial and inspirational to me. They are a reminder of what I went through, which further strengthens my dedication to helping cancer survivors and working toward the eradication of this insidious disease.

Five years – yay! I did it!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

With Cancer Survivorship Comes Great Responsibility

It hit me yesterday, perhaps harder than ever, that my having survived cancer nearly five years ago requires that I live boldly, sharing my God-given talents to help make the world, if only a small portion of it, a better place. I was sifting through e-mails and received one from my cousin Cindy who has a friend whose sister passed away last Saturday after a relapse of cancer—she’d had leukemia. Cindy had told me about this a couple of weeks ago and asked for any advice or information I could share, especially regarding clinical trials. The woman had been in remission from the leukemia but when the cancer came back, it had spread to her liver.

As I read Cindy’s e-mail, I once again realized how extremely fortunate I have been. There is no justice or reason in the randomness of who dies or survives illness, whatever their age; and sometimes survivor’s guilt surfaces. We know we are all going to die, but we expect, and hope, it will be later rather than sooner. So when I read stories of young people passing away before their time, it makes me achingly aware that none of us is guaranteed tomorrow, that we should make the most of each day, be truly present in the company of our loved ones, and do what we enjoy and have passion for in life.

We must stop postponing dreams and goals, thinking we have all the time in the world: I’ll do it when I have more money, when I’m older, when my kids are grown, when I’ve learned more or gained more experience. How many excuses can we devise to remain stuck in our current existence? Familiarity can breed stagnation. Many times we remain stagnant because the familiar is a comfortable place in which to reside, even if we are unhappy, discontented, and the realization of—or even first steps toward—unfulfilled dreams remain dormant and far off in the distance.

Since my cancer diagnosis, I have tried to live my life more daringly and manifest my dreams by taking the appropriate actions. And I have accomplished some of these goals—the most exciting one was writing my book, Rebirth, which was written with the intention to help, encourage, and inspire patients going through cancer. The prospect of the book being completed and available to help anyone in need has been very fulfilling, and I can envision my message widely spread throughout the country. However, now that the book is ready to make its debut, I feel some trepidation. What if it’s not good enough? What if it is criticized? Well, I ask myself, “What if this does happen?” Whatever happens, I know I will be fine.

When I set out to author this book it was with the intention of helping others, and it will only be able to do that if it is out in the world. Furthermore, if Rebirth helps even one person, then I've accomplished my goal. What I must remember is that I was given creative gifts: the ability to act, to write, to speak, all injected with a good deal of compassion to boot. As someone who vowed to make a difference in the world and to be a braver person if I made it through my cancer battle, it would be a betrayal to not keep that vow. So it is with this intention in mind that I march onward to promote my book and achieve all the creative goals I’ve set regardless of the outcome.

As a cancer survivor, it is my responsibility to make sure that I not only give back to the people who so generously helped me through that terrible ordeal, but also to give forward to other cancer patients and survivors, or anyone going through a difficult time. But perhaps more importantly, is the responsibility to hold myself accountable for the dreams and goals I set that could have disappeared along with my life had I died from the leukemia. And in a way, that may be the biggest responsibility of all—keeping the promises I made to myself. For how can I possibly encourage others to muster the audacity to take flight, spread their wings, and soar into the unknown if I lack the nerve to do it myself?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Goals and Dreams Become Reality

A book published; a journal writing workshop for cancer patients developed and being piloted; a Web site completed by January 31, 2009. These are goals I put into motion over the past five years, one year, and six months respectively, that have now come to fruition. This is not the first time in my life that I’ve written down goals and accomplished them. Sometimes goals are achieved quickly; other times, they’ve taken nearly a decade; and then there are those yet to be attained.

To spark others toward acting on their dreams and goals, one suggestion I give is to write them down (which is what I do). I believe the written word transports creative energy out into the universe, manifesting those words as concrete results. Writing is also a means of holding oneself accountable. If you write down goals and dreams, they seem more real, and you’re now committed to accomplishing them and sticking with them through the challenges, of which there are oftentimes many.

This does not mean if you truly lose interest in your previously specified pursuit, you should slog onward; there is no joy in drudgery. In fact, if you find yourself struggling over a long period of time, you are no longer receiving personal fulfillment, and you have to force yourself to do the work, at this point, it is best to release these dreams and goals. It’s now time to discover new ones.

However, if your struggle is fleeting, and you find yourself periodically vacillating between periods of frustration and inspiration, persevere long enough to see if any progress is being made. As long as you see incremental progress, regardless of how small, you will stay excited about pursuing your dreams and goals. These baby steps will eventually transform into something spectacular.

My first couple weeks of 2009 have been pretty amazing. I’m full of positive energy, and I am excited to see how the year continues to unfold. Happy New Year and cheers!