Diana Raab, MFA is author of seven books of nonfiction and poetry, including, Healing With Words: forthcoming in 2010. Her memoir, Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal won the 2008 National Indie Excellence Award for Memoir and the 2009 Mom's Choice Award for Adult Nonfiction. She's editor of the anthology, Writers and Their Notebooks (University of South Carolina Press, 2010). Her award-winning writing has been widely anthologized and published in literary journals. She teaches in the UCLA Writers' Program and in various venues around the country. She frequently lectures on journaling and keeping a notebook for both writers and non-writers.
Words have always helped me survive and my recent bout with breast cancer was another perfect example.
At the age of forty-seven, when everything was going right in my life, I was diagnosed with
DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ), an early stage of breast cancer. It was as if I'd been run over by a Mac truck. I thought I might die.
It was April 2001, around the time I took my 12-year-old son, Josh, for a getaway to New York City. We had a magical mother-son weekend and caught a few Broadway shows. The day after we returned home, the phone rang. It was one of those dreaded calls from the receptionist at the mammogram center where I had my annual mammogram the week before.
"There's something suspicious the radiologist wants to check out."
My inclination was to tell her that she had the wrong number and hang up. Nobody in my family had ever had cancer, let alone breast cancer. I thought my monthly self-breast exams would protect me from any eventuality. Not.
In prior years, I'd received similar phone calls and thankfully, everything turned out fine. This time, however, my intuitive inner voice said that I might have a reason to worry. I was never one to sit back and go with the flow. I've always been proactive, attending to issues immediately. This time was no different. I quickly sought opinions and consultations to make an informed decision.
My writing has often been sparked by critical events or traumas in my life. My first book, Getting Pregnant and Staying Pregnant, erupted while being confined to bed rest with my first-born child. Writing helped me cope with and navigate through that experience and so many others.
After my second set of mammograms the radiologist called me into his office, my mammograms hanging on the screen.
"Have a seat," he said.
"I'm glad you came back. Those are your mammograms," he said pointing to the screen. "We wanted to make sure that the sprinkles of white on your breast were not talcum powder, which sometimes looks like calcium deposits. But," he said, "I'm afraid to report that these are indeed calcium deposits."
I was overcome by nausea and dizziness and didn't hear the rest of his words. He noticed and offered me orange juice and then continued.
"It's really good that you came in, because it's not generally something you can detect on your monthly breast exams, which as a nurse, I assume you're doing."
"Yes. Every month."
"So what I suggest now is you have a biopsy," he said, swiveling towards me in his chair. "You should call your doctor and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. If something is going on, it's very early and that's the good news."
I thanked him for his time, gathered my belongings, slipped on my sunglasses and with blurry eyes found my way to my car. I sat numb in the driver's seat, afraid to pull out, not wanting to risk the lives of those around me. From my purse, I took out my journal that I always carried with me. I dated the top of the page and poured out my heart. I'd read somewhere that you should write until it doesn't feel good any more. It took me fifteen minutes to get to that place. I put my journal away and in between sobs phoned my husband at work to tell him about my appointment.
"Are you okay to drive?" he asked.
"Well then come to my office, I want to hold you."
I told him I preferred to meet him at home and hung up. I settled back in my seat and the phone rang. It was my fourteen-year-old daughter, Regine.
"You don't sound good, Mom."
"Well, honey, I just had an abnormal mammogram and I'm afraid that I might have breast cancer," I told her bluntly.
"Oh no, Mom, did you call Dad?"
"Yes. I did."
"Don't worry, Mom," she said, obviously not knowing what else to say. I was struck by her next comment. "Mom, there's a book in this, I know there is," she said in her casually wise tone.
Until that moment, I didn't realize that my family, especially my kids, understood the important role of writing in my life.
At that time, we were living in Orlando and I'd decided to seek the opinion of a world-renowned specialist in DCIS in Los Angeles. Thankfully, I got a quick appointment. The jaunt across the country was well worth this doctor's expertise. I decided to venture back to California to have the surgery he'd suggested—a mastectomy and reconstruction.
I wrote my way across the country and while waiting in airport terminals. It was one month before September 11th, so traveling wasn't as stressful as it is today. Those were the days of air travel when you could wear your shoes from one end of the airport to the next and didn't have to put all of your personal liquids in a transparent bag for the world to examine.
Once in California, my husband checked us into a most fabulous hotel near the hospital.
"If you have to go through this," he said, "I want you to do it in style." At the front entrance we were greeted by friendly and receptive attendants, who must have wondered about my inability to crack a smile. We checked in and then walked down the beautiful hallway lined with exotic Persian rugs to our suite. The whole time I had these flashes of surgeons dressed in white coming towards me holding every size scalpel. I could not shake the idea that the next day I would lose my right breast.
Although he tried hard to make me laugh, I was unusually uncommunicative with my husband. The only thing I wanted to do was dive into my journal and spill out my feelings. On the day before my surgery, I sat in the chair of our suite's balcony and wrote for the entire day, only stopping to eat and sleep. My words flowed like a running faucet. I didn't want to fight it and my husband knew that it was the best thing for me, so he let me be. I went with my urge, because just like when you crave a certain food, chances are your body needs it. I have very similar sentiments about journaling.
The following morning before checking into the surgical unit and after taking my shower, I took one more glance at my body in the bathroom mirror. Just for good measure, Simon snapped a nude photo. Although it's now eight years later, I have no interest in seeing that photo; I don't want to slip back into the mood of that morning.
I caressed my right breast in my hand and said goodbye and thanked it for nursing my three children. During all these outward displays there was not only a huge amount of inner turmoil, but, an enormous amount of reflection which filled the pages of my journal.
I will never forget my first post-operative appointment with my plastic surgeon. I was still quite sore and uncomfortable with my appearance. He asked me how I felt.
"Physically I feel fine, but getting dressed is a problem; I really don't know what to wear. It's like I need to change my entire wardrobe."
"Diana," he said, putting his hand on my knee, "I have two favors to ask you."
"First, I want you to go home and start wearing provocative clothing. First wear them around the house, and when you get comfortable, start wearing them out. You're a beautiful woman and your breasts look wonderful."
I sat there as he complimented his own work. My mind spun in circles about whether I'd ever be able to follow his advice.
"Second. You're a writer, right?"
"Well I want you to start keeping a journal. I want you to write at least every day and then after one month I want you to send me your journal."
I sat there stunned. I had never shared my journal with anyone. I wondered why he wanted to see it. Was he making a pass at me or did he want to be my incentive to write. I felt more comfort in the latter explanation.
A tear dropped on my cheek as I realized that he really understood me. He knew what I needed to be happy; he gave me a healing assignment. I thanked him and stood up and gave him a hug. On my way home, all I kept thinking was, "How did he know?"
In the end everything worked out well. I had a great prognosis and I returned home a new woman. No doubt, it it took some time to get used to my new physical landscape and writing about my experience helped a lot. Still one of the hardest aspects of losing a breast has been getting used to the complete loss of sensation on the mastectomy side. My nipple is numb and when my husband touches me I don't feel anything. When holding books or packages against my chest I don't feel anything either. Often times, I've wondered, (hypothetically of course) if I was asleep and my breast caught on fire, what would happen?
Now six years later I remain quite sensitive to any discussion about breasts, mine or any one else's. I am simply jealous of women who have their natural breasts. My husband frequently consoles me by saying that I have 'two breasts' and thankfully, in his eyes, I am still a 'whole woman.'
One winter we visited his parents in their beach condominium and I worried about finding a suitable bathing suit. I worried about people staring at my unevenness wondering which side was affected. I knew that I'd do the same. Finally, I found the perfect solution and bought a few black workout bras that nicely concealed the new me.
Even though the doctors assured me of my excellent prognosis, my husband and I could never be sure of my mortality. He encouraged me to follow my dreams, one of which was returning to graduate school for my MFA in writing. I applied to numerous schools and was accepted into a program where I sat last week as returning alumni with a published book.
My thesis was two-fold. One was a memoir about my breast cancer journey and the other was a memoir based on the life of my grandmother, from whom I inherited the writing gene. Writing is my way of healing and these days I teach others to do the same. I truly believe in its cathartic qualities—whether you decide to pursue publication or not. There are so many positive aspects of writing. It gives us a chance to vent honestly about our feelings, ground us in our sentiments and gives us a chance to heal from our loss.
When I finished my breast cancer journal, I mailed it to my doctor. On my next appointment he told me that he was so happy to have received it and that he would share my thoughts with his patients. I cannot thank him enough for inspiring me to put my words on the page. Sometimes it is the little things in life which really matter!
I suggest my students begin writing a letter to someone they love, either alive or deceased. For me, writing a letter to my grandmother helped me reconnect with the woman who nurtured my passion for the written word and who journaled all her trials and tribulations of being orphaned during World War I in Poland and subsequent immigrations to Vienna and the United States.
Bringing her back into my life, reminded me of the day when I was six-years old and she taught me how to type on her Remington typewriter perched on her vanity. She told me everyone should know how to type. She must have known that one day I would be a writer. Although it is more than forty years since her passing, I thank her everyday for instilling in me the passion for reading and writing, which now I share with the world.