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Writing through cancer

Cancer survivor Ali Zidel Meyers reflects on joining a cancer writing group and how it helped her and others through their experience.

Editors' note: This piece marks the start of an ongoing collaboration with Months to Years, a nonprofit quarterly publication that showcases nonfiction, poetry and art exploring mortality and terminal illness. 

I walk up the marble stairway -- 30 steps or so -- to see if I can do it. These steps will become a ritual that serves as a barometer of my physical status on a given day; the oxygen and energy it takes to climb signify my blood cell counts, strength, and endurance. Today, I'm not winded.

I enter a room: Five women and one man sit around the rectangular table. All of them over the age of 50. I expected to be the youngest person here, having attended a couple of support groups where I was the youngest by decades.

"Keep an open mind," I tell myself. I am not a joiner, and I haven't written anything other than work-related articles or journal entries since college. My hands are clammy.

"Welcome to the group," the instructor says. "I see we have some new faces and some familiar ones. Let's take a brief moment to introduce ourselves, and we'll get started with our first prompt."

The group goes round, announcing their cancer, staging, and metastatic status. I sit like a curious observer, as if I'm not a participant, but a scientist on the other side of a one-way, invisible mirror.

"We're writing from the belly of the beast here. It's generative writing -- in the moment, spontaneous, fresh. That means we don't criticize or ask questions. We simply listen and honor what was written."

The group shares a simultaneous head nod.

"Good. Let's begin... Think of a window you're looking through these days. It can be literal or figurative. Write for 15 minutes about what you see, what you feel, when you gaze through your window."

I take a breath and begin to write. The words flow surprisingly, and I lose myself in the image of my kids playing outside, just beyond our kitchen window.

It feels like seconds later when, the instructor chimes her meditation bell, and we all stop writing. "Who would like to share what you've written?"

After others share, I raise my hand to go next.

"I wrote something," I announce.

My Window


Self-possessed both of you
my children
under the magnolia tree
laughing loud as its scent--
clean and untattered,
voluptuous with life.

And in the window
I see myself
reflected back
alive and smiling
not a ghost
but still here and real.

I exhale with a push and look up, feel the group's quiet like a cloak.

"A rich and illuminated poem," the instructor breaks the silence. "...The honesty of a mother's hope to see herself watching the scene -- alive and well. I love it."

Her feedback takes me by surprise. Whether the poem is good or bad doesn't matter. I feel heard, seen, and understood. The other writers encourage me too.

The strength of that experience -- reading what I wrote and having it witnessed and affirmed, feeds a nascent desire to write that has been with me since childhood. It teaches me that I might have something to say that can touch others. It's the discovery of a well I will draw from, in the barren territory of my isolation, at other times in my illness. It is learning to listen to myself and then telling others what it means to be alive in this moment.

Writing also holds an incredible potency that I will try and understand but fail to discover until years later. It has the potential to heal and restore, and I will watch it wield its cathartic influence time and time again -- first on me, then on others, and years later, as the group's facilitator.

Through writing, something will dislodge itself inside me, open a pathway to another life and make me feel whole despite the fractured self I didn't recognize through the worst days of my illness.

Ali Zidel Meyers, MSW, is a writer, educator, and colon cancer survivor. She is passionate about the intersection of writing and healing (and helping others experience it). For more than five years, she has led writing groups for Stanford's Supportive Care program at the Stanford Cancer Center. This free group meets monthly at Hoover Pavilion. More of her work can be found at Holy Mess

A longer version of this piece appears in the winter issue of Months to Years. 

Photo by _Alicja_

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