Writing can help to process a traumatic experience and in this article Juliet talks about how regular journaling helped her deal with having gone through cancer treatment and how it also helped her cope during the coronavirus pandemic.
By Juliet Fitzpatrick
I was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago this month. To be precise, on 22nd January 2016. I’d like to say that I started writing about my experience right from the beginning … but I didn’t. The truth is that I was much too traumatised and shocked to think about writing it all down. Instead, my way of coping consisted mostly of watching rubbish American dramas – think Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Gray’s Anatomy and you have an insight into what was going on in my life. I just did not have the mental capacity to write about what I was going through. My concentration was so limited that I struggled to read books, let alone think about writing one. In all seriousness, the idea of writing down how I was feeling was anathema to me because I just wouldn’t let myself think about how I was feeling.
I started blogging after I’d had my second mastectomy and began living as a flat woman. I had to fight for eighteen months before my surgeon agreed to that procedure and I wasn’t happy about it. How could I tell the world, or at least my friends and family, about what I’d gone through and my thought processes? Many of them would never have seen a woman with no breasts – just as I hadn’t before I went looking for them on Google. The answer was a topless photo shoot on an icy cold day in February 2018 – if I still had nipples they would have been on point! – accompanied by my very first post on my new blog, Blooming Cancer.
Writing that first post was cathartic. All of the rage, injustice, anxiety, fear and sadness came pouring out of me. To my astonishment, as I wrote, I began expressing positive emotions of pride, happiness, empowerment and self-love. This was most unexpected. Since then, I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected when I write. That’s what writing does for me. It takes me to places that I never anticipate.
The joy of writing my blog is being able to express myself; to transfer my feelings and thoughts from my hamster wheel of a brain onto the keys of my laptop and send them off into the ether. It’s wonderful when my words are read but I love to write them regardless of whether they find an audience. I write to make myself feel better and if my words can help to inform or connect with others then that’s an added positive. I’ve found a community on social media through sharing my words. Most have or had cancer and connecting with these beautiful people has been a highlight of my life.
I don’t blog as much as I used to these days. I still write though and now I write every day. The difference is that I write privately and purely for myself. In January last year my mental health was very poor, and I knew that I had to find a way to make myself feel better. I wasn’t sleeping well, and my mind was constantly whirring – full of thoughts, anxieties and worries. I just couldn’t find a way to quieten my brain. I’d read a lot about the practice of journaling, especially in Dr Rangan Chaterjee’s, The Stress Solution, and in Julia Cameron’s, The Artists Way – she calls it Morning Papers, and I thought I’d give it a go; what did I have to lose.
One year later and I’m still writing every day. I journal as a way to download the contents of my brain onto paper. I dump whatever is in my head onto the page and I use a notebook and pen. I write whatever comes into my head – its free writing and I find it liberating. I usually write for half an hour but there’s no set time. I get out of bed by 6am, often earlier, every morning of the week and come downstairs. I love the quietness and I do enjoy the darkness at the moment. I don’t look at my phone at all until I’ve finished that morning’s journaling. I don’t want anything that I may see to influence what I might write. In the kitchen, I remove my favourite red and white striped mug from the dishwasher and make myself a cup of coffee from my bean to cup machine. I retrieve my current notebook, which is number seven, from its hiding place and find my favourite pen. Then I settle on the stool at the breakfast bar and begin to write.
Some days, especially during these days that just merge into each other, I do find it difficult to know what to write. On those days, I turn to some prompts which one of my favourite authors, Cathy Rentzenbrink, offers in her book, A Manual for Heartache. Perhaps you’ll find them a useful way to get going:
Where are you?
How are you feeling?
What are you sad about?
What are you angry about?
What are you frightened of?
What are you grateful for?
What are you looking forward to?
As a result of deciding to write daily, I have inadvertently compiled a diary of how I’ve experienced the extraordinariness of Covid life. I write about the different measures that were imposed on us the previous day, or the number of new cases and deaths. The summer entries were full of hope, but now I write about how the virus is out of control again.
Whatever I write, there are a few certainties. My mind is clearer, a weight is lifted from my shoulders each day and, by writing about gratitude, I understand exactly how lucky I am.
I want to end by sharing an extract from an entry from each of my seven notebooks so that you can read for yourselves what comes out of my head.
28th March – Day 5 (after Lockdown 1)
Missing D & L (my adult children) through this CV lockdown. Don’t know when we can be together again and that’s really hard. But it will pass and all of us in this country will have a big party. I hope society will have changed permanently to be kinder and more caring.
17th May Day 53
It’s very hard doing therapy in the lockdown bubble. Feelings and ideas seem to get amplified and there’s nowhere to go to get away from the work. I know that it’s hard for every single person and everyone has their own additional baggage, So I’m not special. And I’m grateful for my health, my home, that I have some money, for Liam and his listening and friendship, for my children who are caring and being successful and have found love themselves. For my garden and my ability to train and workout. For my dogs who make me go out into the countryside every day.
20th July Day 120
Lockdown has been so long that I’m entrenched in the thought of home and the safety of home. I’ve had that feeling for years and maybe lockdown has intensified it. I feel inertia about going out or going anywhere. I think it’s a combination of not being used to going anywhere and also being in control in my safe home. I like the idea of going out and going to places but there’s a real feeling of not wanting to bother. It’s a big push-pull.
8th September Day 169
I’m writing this at 7.30am which is weird because I normally write at 6am. I didn’t wake up until 7am today. My sleep is so much better and I’m incredibly grateful for that. Doing Sleepstation when I was desperate to sleep was so helpful and really worked for me. It was hard. But the result is transformational. Something good that has happened – that I have made happen.
2nd November Day 221
I get my back operation today and I don’t want to go. I know deep inside my rational mind that it will go well and it will be successful. But my irrational mind keeps making me scared. So it’s a battle between the two parts of my mind to make me go into that theatre, Its 5.50am and we have to be there at 7am. The pain is worsening and so it needs to be done. And I remember and remind myself how lucky I am to be having it today on the brink of Lockdown 2 in a private hospital by a neurosurgeon, who seems very kind and reassuring.
15th December Day 265
I slept very badly and feel like shit. This Pandemic isn’t ending any time soon. We’ve been put in Tier 3 from tomorrow with London and some other parts of Essex. I feel really pissed off about it and angry at others not doing what they’re meant to. Fundamentally it doesn’t change very much for Liam & I . For me the issue is my personal trainer and psychotherapist. I’ve been really enjoying seeing them face to face and benefitting alot from the contact. Now that’s going to be gone again
5th January Day 286
So Lockdown 3 starts today. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Scared and worried that the virus is out of control. Angry with the Government for botching it all and not taking strong and timely decisions. Upset that cancer and other conditions will get set back again and more people will die as a result, not just from Covid. Really scared about getting Covid and being put on a ventilator. Sad about not seeing D & L and the rest of my family and friends. Really angry with my fellow citizens for being so shit at following the regulations and allowing the virus to keep spreading. And alarmed at how political it all is.
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Future Dreams hold a range of support groups, classes, workshops and events to help you and your carers during your breast cancer diagnosis. These are held both online and in person at the London-based Future Dreams House. To see what’s on offer and to book your place, see here. Juliet helps to run regular writing workshops, encouraging people who’ve had breast cancer to use writing to help process the impact that it has head on them and to move forwards.
This article was written by a guest author based on their own experience of breast cancer and its treatment. It is important to note that this is one person’s experience and that whilst there may be commonalities between the experiences of different people, everyone has a different diagnosis/treatment plan/general experience. The information and content provided in all guest articles is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. It is important that all personalised care decisions should be made by your medical team. Please contact your medical team for advice on anything covered in this article and/or in relation to your personal situation. Please note that unless otherwise stated, Future Dreams has no affiliation to the guest author of this article and he/she/they have not been paid to write this article. There may be alternative options/products/information available which we encourage you to research when making decisions about treatment and support.
Sylvie and Danielle began Future Dreams with just £100 in 2008. They believed nobody should face breast cancer alone. Their legacy lives on in Future Dreams House. We couldn’t continue to fund support services for those touched by breast cancer, raise awareness of breast cancer and promote early diagnosis and advance research into secondary breast cancer without your help. Please consider partnering with us or making a donation.