How Words Heal: A Q&A with Susan Gubar

July 27, 2016

In the book Reading & Writing Cancer, Susan Gubar discusses how writing and reading can be therapeutic explorations of one’s cancer journey. The book gives techniques for writing about a personal cancer experience, and it provides various examples of authors’ published pieces about cancer to be examined.  

Gubar is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English at Indiana University, so discussing literature and composition are second nature to her. Gubar’s previous book, Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer, really opened up readers to her diagnosis, treatment, and life with cancer. Also, Gubar currently writes about having ovarian cancer in her New York Times blog, “Living with Cancer.” Through Gubar’s enthusiasm and passion for the written word, her current book, Reading & Writing Cancer, explains how words can help right some of the wrongs of cancer.

The Cancer Support Community is excited to have Susan Gubar answer some questions about her book Reading & Writing Cancer, which was released May 17. You can hear more from Susan Gubar on this week's episode of Frankly Speaking About Cancer.


Q: Why do you think it’s important for someone to discuss their cancer through writing?

Gubar: Some patients remain very private about their diagnosis and treatment, while others need to discuss their experiences with family, friends, support groups, and even strangers.  The composition process can help both groups.  Because a diary can be kept secret, it offers very private patients the opportunity to formulate their options or consider their responses to medical events.  Because a blog can circulate among a select number of acquaintances or reach a larger readership, it enables patients to provide updates on their condition and to engage in understanding the emotional, financial, and physical ramifications of the totally altered world that comes into being after a cancer diagnosis.


Q: What are some tips for novice or even seasoned writers about composing pieces that are really personal or hard to write about?

It helps to zero in on whatever matter seems most disturbing or pressing.  A difficult medical decision, the shock of hearing the diagnosis, unexpected side-effects of radiation or chemotherapy, an uncongenial conversation with a physician, a friend’s reaction to your disease, how you look in the mirror.

After you have decided on a pen and notebook or a computer file, the most important thing is to keep on moving the pen across the page or pushing the keys on the keyboard for twenty minutes every day.  It’s like the punchline of the old joke asking “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  Practice, practice, practice.


Q: What are a couple of prompts to jumpstart writing about one’s cancer experience?

In Reading and Writing Cancer, I provide two different types of prompts.  The first is an assignment.  For example:  Untie the strands of a domestic or work-related knot created by treatment; create a prayer or a curse; or visualize what your cancer or your fear looks like.  The second is a springboard, a sentence that needs to be completed.  “I wish I could tell my oncologist  . . .” or “Waking at 3 a.m., I  . . .” or “I used to . . . , but now I . . . “  

Writing about your experiences will help you reflect upon them in the present.  It will also help you remember them in the future.


Q: Why is it important to read other people’s accounts of their cancer journey?

I find myself feeling less lonely when I read cancer blogs, memoirs, and stories, and therefore less anomalous.  The companionship of reading pulls me outside myself . . .  which is a relief, even when I am reading about people dealing with difficult circumstances of their own.  And of course some journalism informs me about options that might be useful, while some novels move and inspire me.

The memoirs I discuss in the book clarify how patients have criticized the medical establishment and also how they have envisioned the nature of cancer itself.  The fiction deals with the weird warping of temporality that cancer effects.


Q: During your suggestions of authors to read in this book, you cover a lot of genres, including short stories, poems, and even graphic novels. It shows that you have a great love for literature, so for those who aren’t as knowledgeable or not as enthusiastic about reading, which works are good ones to start with to get inspired to read and to write more?

There is a beautiful graphic novel, When David Lost His Voice by Judith Vanistendael, about the effects a diagnosis of larynx cancer has on a family.  Alice Munro’s “Floating Bridge” is a wonderful story about a woman whose breast cancer goes into remission.  Lorrie Moore’s story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” brilliantly depicts the experiences of parents who must bring their baby into the surreal world of pediatric oncology. 

For those willing to read about physical suffering, I think the two greatest short stories are Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle.” 

But while composing this book I was also surprised to find that there are visual forms—photographs, paintings, movies about cancer—that can be very powerful prompts for writers.  Certainly a TV series like Breaking Bad illuminates the malevolence of cancer as well as the terror and rage it can spawn. 


Q: You quote Virginia Woolf who said, “In illness, words seem to possess a mystic quality.” Do you agree with this? Do you think of words having the ability to heal or provide therapy?

Writers have always known the power of words.  Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”  And the novelist Graham Greene believed that “writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.”  Like talk therapy, writing therapy takes time and grit and honesty, but it is free.


Q: You have written two books about cancer and are currently writing a blog about cancer for The New York Times. How has writing about your cancer affected you?

For me, writing about cancer functions as an antidote to cancer:  it relieves anxiety.  While I have little control over cancer and its treatments, I have total control over every sentence I write.  In my Times blog, admittedly, I do not have control over the titles of my essays.  Happily, though, I have a brilliant editor. 


Q: Any other pieces of advice you’d like to share with those impacted by cancer about reading or writing?

Like yoga, the only other alternative approach I use to deal with cancer, writing can be undertaken in silent solitude and it can suspend time, instilling respect for oneself, for others, and for the universe. Writing can facilitate relaxation, steadiness, a stilling of nattering voices in the brain, a sense of balance, strength, and achievement.  And writing prompts reading which in turn prompts writing. Did I mention that it’s cheap?