Today I'm honored to share with you a brief book review and an interview with author, Anne Marie Bennett. As I read her book, Bright Side of the Road, I had to deal with my own emotions because the women in my family have been ravaged by cancer. I've lost two aunts to breast cancer, my mother had a mastectomy, and another aunt deals with recurring leukemia. Anne is also an artist, which is how I connected with her, and I believe her artistic vision, in large part, helped to define her attitude in dealing with this harrowing detour in her life's journey. Readers will be humbled and inspired by her gentle, positive acceptance of her role in dealing with cancer. This blog is a little longer than my usual posts, but I hope you'll get yourself a cookie and a cup of something warm to drink as you tarry for just a little while longer and read Anne's take a topic most of us try not to think about at all.
The book is written in journal style:"Thursday February 28
A bright and windy day shines through the window as I settle myself at the kitchen table, warm in my sweatpants and large red sweater. A bagel with jelly, a mug of decaf with cream, and my empty journal laden with possibilities are spread out before me, along with several half-finished art projects. What shall I do today? The thought of all this uncluttered time ahead of me is very healing."
Q. Anne, I believe in creative visualization and positive self-talk. How much of the outcome of your recovery journey do you attribute to your positive outlook?
A. My surgical procedures, chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy allowed me to be physically healed, but I also found myself in need of emotional and spiritual healing, wounded by my fears and by my uncertainty about the future, confronting loss on several levels, and struggling in quicksand when it came to my relationship with Spirit at the beginning of my journey. So my emotional and spiritual recovery was based largely on my ability to accept my feelings and change my thoughts (my definition of positive outlook).
Q. A great deal of our fear of breast cancer is the prospect of losing our hair or having our bodies disfigured. Can you please speak to this and how you dealt with it?
A. My own journey took me through several physical changes. I gained a lot of weight, lost my hair (and not just on my head!), got catapulted into early menopause and lost my libido. Trust me, I was not happy about ANY of this!
For me, my resistance to those physical changes disappeared the day I realized (about halfway through the journey) that I couldn’t do anything about it. I was on this journey, and this is just how things were. I could waste a whole lot of energy bemoaning the fact that I didn’t look like I used to, or I could just relax and go with the flow. It became almost like a game to me, finding the bright side of any situation, especially the baldness. What could be good about not having hair? Well, I saved a lot of money at the drug store, not having to buy conditioner and styling products! Also, I saved a lot of time every morning and there was a great freedom in that, not having to purposely “look good” every day.
Also, my left breast was still present but deformed because of the two lumpectomies and lymph node surgery; I felt lopsided and ugly in my own skin, and I’d never felt that way before. In the last chapter of Bright Side of the Road, I describe my experience at a Women Living with Breast Cancer Retreat at Kripalu which is a center for yoga and health in the Massachusetts Berkshires. At the end of that retreat weekend, we all got into a hot tub together, after placing temporary tattoos on our cancer-torn bodies. And right then, stepping into that swirling, frothy water with 17 other women whose bodies were in equal or worse disrepair… I suddenly realized… I really got the fact that it’s what’s inside of me that’s way more important than what I look like. Because I had grown to love all of those women in the course of the weekend, and it didn’t matter one iota to me whether or not they had one breast, or two breasts, or deformed breasts, or scars on their belly or legs from reconstructive surgery. They were who they were because of what was inside of them. That was a huge awakening moment to me, a sacred moment of realization.
Q. It's been said that we're fully actualized only when we can thank God for our challenges. Elsewhere online you mentioned "angels rearranging your soul furniture". How has this experience changed and/or blessed your life?
A. Yes, a friend of mine in college used to say that about any big thing any of us were going through. I always loved that, and wish I knew where he was right now to thank him for that beautiful image! I used to read about people who lived through cancer or some other traumatic event, and if they said things like That was the best thing that ever happened to me, or I am grateful that this happened to me, I thought they might seriously be a little bit crazy. But now I seem to be one of those people!
I can honestly say that my breast cancer journey has both changed and blessed my life in some beautiful ways. First of all, I changed my priorities. I was given the gift of several months off from my full-time job, which was no longer serving my needs for creativity and joy. My time off, although filled with fatigue from my treatments, reminded me of my passion for writing and art. So I went back to that job part time and actually left it three years later so I could pursue my creative work full-time instead. I never thought I would say this, but my my cancer gave me more than it took away. I was given love and support from family and friends that surprised me and was soothing to my soul. I was given a closer connection with Spirit. My practices of gratitude and meditation gave me a whole new outlook on life.
Q. Most of us have experienced the letter or phone call to go back for a second mammogram, and we panic and begin bargaining with God and mentally rewriting our wills. Please talk about your emotions after being told you actually had cancer.
A. What immediately entered my mind was absolute terror. It was completely surreal. My thoughts went something like this: I can’t believe this is happening to me. I don’t WANT this to be happening to me. I don’t have time for this. Am I going to die? Get the cancer OUT of my body. And really, my immediate response was fear. I know some women whose basic emotion was anger, but I didn’t feel much anger. I cried a lot those first few days (just ask my husband!), until my next appointment with my doctor where we created a treatment plan of action. After that I felt a little better and decided that breast cancer wasn’t going to kill me, it was just going to be one more interesting thing about me.
Q. You've looked at life from both sides now, Anne. Please share with us how to be helpful to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Did you want people asking about it, or would you rather they had just acted as if everything was "normal"?
A. This is a really good question, Cat. Every person is different, but I will tell you how it was for me. After I was diagnosed, I chose to tell everyone I knew about my cancer. It’s important to remember that this is a choice that a cancer patient makes. I really didn’t have to tell anyone except my husband and my boss, but a breast cancer survivor I met online confided in me that she had told everyone about her cancer and was glad she did because she received support from some surprising places. I’m a very private person, so that was a huge leap of faith for me to do the same!
So… if someone has told you they have breast cancer (or any serious illness), that is not something to take lightly. This is a conscious choice that they made, to include you on their journey. You should feel honored that they have trusted you with this part of their life.
I actually didn’t mind when people asked me about what I was going through. It made me feel like they were interested, and I preferred specific questions (Do you like your doctors? How often do you have to have chemo? Have you lost any hair yet?) to the main one that most people asked me which was: How are you feeling? And this was mainly because most of the time I felt like a washed-out version of my former self, and I really didn’t like saying that over and over again.
Also, I really liked it when people saw past the cancer and asked me questions about my normal life (ie: what I was reading or how Jeff’s kids were doing or what kind of art project I was working on). These kinds of questions reminded me that I wasn’t just a cancer patient, that cancer didn’t completely define me. These kinds of questions made me feel seen on a real soul level.
Q. I want to pass my copy of Bright Side of the Road along to someone else, but I'm not sure when would be the best time. My sister knows a lady who was just diagnosed with breast cancer, but we thought that a book about chemo, surgery, and hair-loss right now might be too much for her. On the other hand, I have a former student who is a survivor, and I thought of giving it to her, but once it's behind them, maybe people would rather just get on with living and not dwell on the past.
A. When I was first diagnosed, I read every book about breast cancer that I could get my hands on. But there was no book quite like Bright Side of the Road, which is the main reason I wrote it… it’s the book I wish I had had while I was going through my own surgeries and treatments. So, I definitely would have liked it if someone had given me Bright Side of the Road at the beginning of my journey. And once it was behind me, I really didn’t want to read any more books about cancer right away. But it will be different for every woman. If you do give my book to someone at the beginning of her journey, she might read little bits of it here and there, maybe just start at the back, with the resources section. Or she might just use the guided meditation audio recording that comes with the book. In other words, she’ll read it in a way that is most helpful to her.
Thanks, Anne, for recording and sharing moments and insights from your courageous journey with us.
Anne Marie Bennett is a writer, self-taught collage artist, and website goddess. She has worked as a bookseller, sheet presser, library assistant, computer consultant, and in theatre management. She lives in eastern Massachusetts with her middle-aged husband (also a cancer survivor), two elderly cats and one very playful dog. She is happiest when she is reading, writing, breathing salt air, dancing, and hugging her beautiful grandchildren.
For more information about Anne Marie’s book, Bright Side of the Road: http://www.annemariebennett.com/To purchase the book: www.annemariebennett.com/how-to-purchase
Bright Side of the Road is also available on Amazon.com