Putting Words to Cancer

 

 Both writing and talking can support us through tough times. Anthony Wilson found that different ways of putting words to his journey through cancer helped him survive the disease and regain his wellbeing.

‘I was having a coffee in the kitchen and caught the end of a [radio news] headline about a snooker player from the world championships in Sheffield. What I heard was “was defeated today, leaving him to continue his battle with cancer.”’

So writes Anthony Wilson in Love for Now, the journal charting his own experience of the disease. Anthony was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Valentine’s Day in 2006. He was 42. Though now in full remission, phrases like ‘battle with cancer’ can still make him wince. He reflects in his journal that ‘“battling the disease” is the last thing you feel like doing, especially once chemotherapy starts.’

Anthony recognises that describing cancer as a fight is typical of the way it is talked about publicly, but he finds such language dispiriting: ‘It places the onus of recovery onto the patient when they’re at their most vulnerable,’ he writes.

For Anthony, cancer was more a journey than a war. Trying to find the right words at the right time helped him navigate his way from diagnosis and treatment through to full remission in October 2006, and gradual return to work as a poet and academic at theUniversityofExeter.

Journal-writing was not the only way with words that helped. Anthony’s poetry collection, Riddance, also emerged from his cancer experience. And as he reached remission, he found that words spoken in the space of a counselling room as well as written onto a blank page could be therapeutic.

Anthony started a journal when he was diagnosed with cancer, ‘in an effort not to forget what I was going through.’ He kept it as he went along, writing something most days. ‘I wasn’t sure if I could keep it up, but I managed,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t write when I was in hospital. But back home I discovered that bed was a great place to write. I filled 3 hardback exercise books with scrawly bright writing.’

Anthony recorded his thoughts and feelings, described chemotherapy and its side-effects, his misdiagnosed relapse and tentative steps towards remission. He wrote about food he ate; TV he watched and music he listened to; he recalled activities and conversations shared with his wife, children and friends.

This individual mix of content reflects a journal’s versatility: It can include whatever is personally important to the writer. Anthony recorded factually what was happening to him, to help him make sense of an unfamiliar medical regime. He encourages anyone undergoing medical treatment to jot down definitions of terms used, to refer to later.

He also expressed a range of emotional responses. The page became a container of fear, relief, gratitude and uncertainty, as he named and ordered aspects of his experience. Such writing can bring order and understanding, preventing negative feelings from becoming overwhelming. It can also help the writer remember positives that might otherwise be overlooked.

Anthony says that he originally wrote the journal for himself: ‘I hadn’t realised what a physical thing cancer treatment is, and how draining it is for everyone, patients and medical staff alike.’

As others became aware that he was keeping a journal, he started to sense that he might be writing for others too: ‘I felt that people needed to know the scaffolding of cancer treatment,’ he says, ‘and have some of these things opened up to them in ordinary words.’

Completing his journal became ‘a debt of honour to my family and friends, and to the doctors and nurses who treated me.’ He felt this particularly acutely as the friend helping him prepare his journal for a wider readership herself contracted cancer, and knew she would not live to see it published

As a writer, Anthony says that putting words on a page was a natural response to what he was experiencing: ‘I always have a notebook around to jot down quotes, observations or little images. The journal just extended this practice. But anyone can potentially write a journal. I’d recommend doing this in difficult times. It’s personally very helpful.’

Whilst Anthony’s journal-writing was ongoing throughout his cancer, he says that writing poems was a different way of using words on his road to healing: ‘The poetry I wrote was looking back, looking forward and looking inside what had happened.’

The sections of Riddance broadly follow his progress through cancer as plotted in the journal, but the poems emerged in ‘bursts of writing,’ as he approached remission and afterwards. Anthony could not write poetry in the midst of his treatment. Chemotherapy sapped his capacity to concentrate.

As he began to regain this ability, Anthony wrote the poems forming his collection’s first part, The Year of Drinking Water. These looked back at aspects of his treatment from a different angle.
‘When I got my cancer diagnosis, I decided not to be angry,’ says Anthony. ‘It was really a pragmatic decision. I thought that anger would waste too much energy.’

But his anger did not disappear completely. ‘I wouldn’t say that my poems are angry, but they did give a voice to some anger at one remove. In a poem I could lay bare my response to things that at the time I just sat quiet and allowed to happen. Poetry helped me find the courage and momentum to express the earlier energy of my voice.’

Such a response is seen in the stark directness of ‘What Not to Say,’ which opens

 

Enough of your lovely shaped head,

your meaning to ring.

 

Tell me as it is;

I look like a waxwork.

 

After writing his collection’s second part – a long poem in memory of his artist friend Lucy, who died of lung cancer in 2008, and its third, comprising poems that move towards remission, Anthony felt he had nothing more to write about his cancer. But his publisher rightly sensed there were more words to come.

These emerged as a series of very pared down untitled poems that form Riddance’s fourth part. They sketch borders in landscapes or glimpsed moments of gratitude, observation or realisation. Anthony has a particular connection with them, as they convey his hesitancy of engaging with remission, and crossing the border-line between unwell and well: ‘The aftermath of my cancer was a surprisingly draining time,’ he says. ‘I felt as though I was coming out of a bomb crater.’

The final part of Riddance comprises poems that Anthony had started before he was diagnosed. Completing them paralleled what he was seeking to do in day-to-day life: to resolve anxieties about fully accepting his recovery. It was one aspect of taking hold of life’s threads again, and marking the passing of his season of illness.

The challenge of coming out of cancer, the very thing he had been longing for, took Anthony by surprise. The treatment may have been successful, but it left Anthony feeling ‘as if I had mental rags hanging off me.’ At this stage, talking, as well as writing, helped him heal.

‘On the day I was told I was OK, I was handed a yellow leaflet with a telephone number on it for counselling,’ he says. ‘I kept putting off ringing it. But things did not get any better. Eventually I thought I couldn’t go on not knowing how these feelings would pan out. It felt like too much pressure riding on me to sort it out on my own. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy left me with “chemo brain” – mental exhaustion that had a depressive effect. I knew I needed to give counselling a go.’

Anthony attended counselling for about a year. He went weekly, then fortnightly, and sometimes had a break and re-engaged as he needed. Alongside this, he continued his journaling.

‘This was just the right time to reflect on what had happened,’ he says. ‘It would have been too much to process during treatment. At that stage, I wasn’t even fully aware of the psychological and emotional impact it was having on me. I needed to re-visit the issue of my mis-diagnosed relapse, and all that had brought up for me about living and dying. Counselling can be so useful, as someone outside of you helps you describe the cycles of emotion going on for you.’

Anthony says it was helpful to explore in an open-ended way what was going for him beneath life’s surface, but what he valued most was the acceptance of his feelings: ‘I found out that it’s OK to say you’re traumatised when you’ve gone through a traumatic experience. Counselling also looked at how I could deal with the weeping and the panic attacks that overtook me when I was supposed to be feeling better. I had permission to feel things without being afraid that I was going mad.’

 

 

To find out more, visit Anthony’s website: www.Anthonywilsonpoetry.com

Love for Now is published by Impress Books Ltd (2012)

Riddance is published by Worple Press (2012)

 

 

 

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  • About Julia

    Julia

    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

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