Writing and reading on a Big Breast Adventure

For the better part of 2014 I was at the pointy end (if you'll pardon the expression) of treatment for breast cancer.  As my kindly but somewhat blunt GP told me when I was first diagnosed, "There's three ways we deal with breast cancer - cut, poison and burn." He was referring, of course, to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  Knowing what I know now after a year's worth of treatment I would like to add two more things to the pointy-end treatment list - writing and reading - both of which I found to be essential therapeutic adjuncts to the traditional treatments. Let's start with the writing. As soon as one is diagnosed with a life threatening condition like breast cancer, the weirdness begins.  It's like entering a parallel universe where everyone you come into contact with talks in a strange language of acronyms and medical jargon and where you, the patient, is seen as the body part bearing the affliction as opposed to being the whole human being you were (presumably) before the diagnosis. In order to make sense of the tsunami of information, scheduled medical appointments, 'nil by mouth' instructions and indeed, shocked emotion from family and friends, I found it helped to write it all down.

What started out as a record of my many conversations with my doctors and other health practitioners quickly became a series of editorials on the weirdness that is a cancer diagnosis, the tedium and sometimes the incongruity of the downstream treatments.  The writing enabled me to analyse, correlate, sometimes verify, question and ultimately integrate what I was being told and experiencing.  It also opened the door to the absurd, to notice and record the peculiar, the freaky, the annoying and often downright hilarious stuff that happened along the way.  Above all though, the writing enabled me to examine and detail how I was feeling both physically and emotionally. It was in the shaping of words around these sensations that I found the greatest healing and release. I guess that's why I've managed to pen 30 blogposts to date on the Big Breast Adventure, with more on the way as the story continues....

The reading end of the literary equation was just as important to me as the writing.  A mountain of stuff gets shovelled at you from conventional sources like the Cancer Council and the Jane McGrath Foundation, all of which is good and well-intentioned.  But after the initial diagnosis information flurry, I found that more and more I ended up reading the things that literally fell into my path, usually recommended by friends and loved ones or that 'came up on my register' on the social media or news/promo feeds I get from various sources.  I've read and listened to a number of books over the past year that have informed and/or sustained me in one way or another on my adventure trail and I list them here, now, for your reading pleasure:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins For those of you who've slept through The Hunger Games book and movie phenomenon, allow me to bring you up to speed.  The heroine of the story, Katniss Everdeen (played by the stunning Jennifer Lawrence in the movies) volunteers in place of her younger sister to compete in the barbaric Hunger Games where children as young as 12 are conscripted to fight to the death in a reality TV on steroids arena. But the Hunger Games are so much more than entertainment - they are the ultimate tool of repression by the ruthless dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his evil best). Katniss' self-sacrifice and defiant performance in the arena catapult her to poster-girl status for a rebellion that's brewing against the President. My niece loaned me her copy of the book right before the commencement of the Big Breast Adventure and I devoured it in the six days I spent in hospital recuperating from surgery. Yes I know - it's hardly the proper choice for post-mastectomy fiction but Katniss Everdeen's story is a compelling one - so much so that I wrote a whole blog about what I learned from her trials and tribulations.

Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani This is a fascinating tale of Anita’s diagnosis and four year battle with cancer that went feral in her body.  She had a prolonged near death experience (NDE) in hospital when she was comatose and her family had been called to her bedside to say their final farewells. Her story is compelling in its own right but what I found riveting was the way Anita has written it. The early parts of the book are a rather stilted sort of memoir but her written expression is completely transformed – more flowing and truthful – once she starts relating her NDE and the mind blowing revelations of what happens ‘on the other side’ that are imparted to her during the experience.

E-Squared and E-Cubed by Pam Grout Brilliant, funny books that combine scientific theory and woo-woo spiritual teachings, bringing them into the realm of the practical.

Miracles Now by Gabrielle Bernstein Written for the era of Twitter this little gem contains 108 (the sacred number) tools and tips for living a more miracle-fuelled life.

The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo An evocative novel and wonderful treatise on finding one's own 'legend', following the omens and embracing the uncertainty of life. We listened to the Audible version narrated by the divine Jeremy Irons in the car driving to and from Canberra recently.  Beautiful.

Surprised by Joy and The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis I've always loved the Chronicles of Narnia series and was privileged enough to read The Horse and His Boy to my father, by his bedside in the last days of his life.  When I recently read Surprised by Joy, a memoir of sorts about Lewis' own intellectual (as much as anything) transition from Atheism to Christianity, I now see why he was one of my father's favourite authors.  Lewis has a learned and inspiring turn of phrase overlaid with a humility that doesn't intimidate the reader.

Above the Fold by Peter Yeldham Peter Yeldham is an acclaimed screen and playwright who has made his living from the written word for nigh on 60 years.  Above the Fold is his latest historical novel that starts with World War II and moves into the 1950s and 1960s in Australia.  Many aspects of the main protagonist's (Luke Elliott) life mirror Peter's own experience and it is the author's ability to weave well rounded characters and scenarios around the events of the time that make his books so compelling for me.  This is the first book published by our fledgling company For Pity Sake Publishing and it's a jolly good read.  Do us a favour and buy it here!

Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields I'm a bit of a tragic for business books I'm sorry to say. Most often this leads to a lot of boring holiday reading as I've never learned to skim all that well.  In the past few years though, I've been secretly delighted by the number of technically speaking business/marketing/management books that mix it up with the spiritual.  It all started with Daniel Pink's fabulous A Whole New Mind and continued with Seth Godin's The Icarus Deception and most recently What to do When it's Your TurnUncertainty is in much the same vein. Written by serial entrepreneur and founder of the Good Life Project, Jonathan Fields, this book thoroughly examines how to embrace uncertainty and fear and use them for fuel to live a fulfilling business and personal life.

Good Bones by Margaret Atwood A book of short stories from the inimitable, acerbic, witty and award winning Canadian author. Great size for the handbag, and a catchy title to be reading in doctor's waiting rooms.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak This is a book about many things - death, Nazi Germany, friendship, abandonment, poverty, the banality and horror of war. Ultimately, though, it's a book about the soul-feeding power of words and books. The movie was good but it doesn't compare to reading the book.

The Power for Vulnerability - Teachings on Authenticity, Connection and Courage by Brené Brown This is an audio version of a workshop given by Brené Brown herself, incorporating all of her work and research into shame. At the tail end of the track entitled From Betrayal to Trust in Session 3, Dr Brown observes that while vulnerability, uncertainty and risk taking is uncomfortable - like torture even - it's even more dangerous to stand outside our own lives, looking in like a stranger at the window, or having regrets in the our twilight years about not being real or all the things we wanted to do but didn't.  Dr Brown believes that this is the developmental challenge of mid-life saying, "It's when the Universe come down, grabs you by the shoulders and says 'I'm not effing around.  I'm not kidding. This is it. I gave you gifts.  I gave you opportunity. I made you in this incredible way. And now it's your turn and you're going to have to put the armour down and be brave and take some risks because it's half way over.' "  In my case the Universe grabbing me by the shoulders was a breast cancer diagnosis and I've revisited this wonderful audible version of Dr Brown's work, delivered in her own inimitable style, many times throughout the year.  Very powerful stuff.

Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander On hearing of my Dad's passing a few years ago now, a dear friend gave me a book called Proof of Heaven written by a neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander.  Dr Alexander tells his story of a massive, unexplained brain infection that puts him in a deep coma for seven days. While his family were told to prepare for the worst, he was having a vivid experience of consciousness, a heavenly realm, beyond his physical form where he had no connection to his earthly identity. The intense irony of this story is that, as a neurosurgeon Dr Alexander had counselled many patients on NDEs - near death experiences - essentially putting these down to some brain activity or echo. When he emerged from the coma (which his doctors never thought he would) and most remarkably, regained his full cerebral capacity (another miracle) he was able to see from his own medical records that his neocortex or the part of the brain that defines our humanity, had been completely shut down by the infection - no activity whatsoever. This is a fascinating read for anyone who's ever asked the question of what happens when we die.

The Scalpel and the Soul by Allan J. Hamilton Allan J Hamilton is a distinguished neurosurgeon of long standing that is more recently credited with his script consultancy role on neurosurgery for the television series Grey's Anatomy. The tagline for this book is Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural and Healing Power of Hope. It's really a series of stories that highlights strange and unexplainable happenings outside the realm of straight medical practice and that could, in some cases, be quite justifiably called modern day miracles.  A fascinating read, made more so because a serious medico wrote it.


Want more from Jenny? Check out her blog at epiphanycommunication.com.au