Last June, at my 35th Vassar Reunion, I sat in a classroom in Rockefeller Hall with two fellow writers from the class of 1988—Valarie Walker and MB Caschetta—reading from our work. Together, we reflected on the impulse to share on paper (or, in the case of Valarie, on the stage as a storyteller) deeply personal stuff. For me, the pull is unavoidable.
A little more than a year before Reunion, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And, at some point, between getting the news and getting over the shock enough to sort out practicalities like treatment options and when to tell my college-age kids that Mom was sick, one thought emerged: I had to write about it.
I needed to sort out the feelings, or at least make a start (spoiler alert: I’m still working on that process), so I reached out to an editor at Everyday Health, a website I’ve written for on and off over the years. “Hi, Elizabeth, hope you’re well. Listen, I have breast cancer and I want to write about it. Reported stuff? Reported essay? Straight essay? I don’t know … what do you think?” (This is not my email verbatim, but from memory, it’s close.)
She answered in the best way an editor can: “Write whatever you want and send it to me.” That turned into a blog on the site that, after a few posts piled up, we named “Doing My Breast: Adventures in Cancer.”
I had chosen to undergo a double mastectomy with a form of autologous reconstruction called DIEP flap. It was May, and I had a confirmed mid-July surgery date. Couple pre-surgery posts, I thought, and a follow-up or two afterwards? A neat little package, tied with a bow, symmetrical and done.
Yet every time I turn in a new piece and think, or suggest, that maybe this is a wrap, it’s … not. Says Elizabeth, my friend and editor: “I think you have more to say.”
There’s always more to say. I’ve written about contemplating loss—and confronting its reality. I’ve written about my sons, my loneliness (the kind other cancer patients will immediately understand has nothing to do with who’s actually around you), my recliner, and the way my surgically altered body resists my attempts to dress it fashionably. I’ve written about the need to be patient and kind with my healing body and my frightened mind—and of the need to get myself moving in the world again, finding whatever renewal I could in a post-cancer persona. I’ve written. I write.
I can’t really do anything else, even though what I’m putting out there is so intensely personal and frankly medical. In the age of patient privacy, here I am describing a diagnosis, offering details about a radical form of surgery, talking about nipples and nerve regeneration and scars to anyone who clicks on the links. Why?
My answer is, perhaps predictably, why not? People say I’m helping others. Sure, maybe, I hope so! If anyone wants to talk, I’m here (seriously, look me up. I spoke to a few women before my surgery that I feel indebted to for their honest advice, and I’d dearly love to pay it forward). But that’s secondary. I’m here to help myself. Scratch the surface of any writer who’s written about their health, mental or physical, in great detail: It’s important to us. It’s therapy.
It’s a means of coping, but it’s even more than that. It’s a means of understanding.
I get to the end of an essay, and—if I’ve hit it right, and that doesn’t ever happen on the first try—I comprehend something I didn’t at the start, that I couldn’t have at the start.
I am on record as disliking “journey” tropes, particularly in Cancer World, but to me, each piece I write is a journey. I don’t know what the view will be until I get to the end, to the top of whatever mountain I’m climbing. I open up a blank document and I’m in the foothills, scratching at the loose dirt with the toe of my sneaker and thinking, “Okay! Let’s go.”
Denise Schipani ’88 is a writer, editor, and author in the New York metro area. She’s working on a memoir about breast cancer.