a guest post by Christine Shields Corrigan
I’m so pleased to be able to share this guest post from Christine Shields Corrigan, author of the critically-acclaimed book Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists. Thanks for making time for this, Christine!
I learned that words have the power to heal, when as a sophomore in high school in 1981, I was diagnosed and treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Four days a week for three and a half months, my parents drove me from Staten Island to New York City for radiation therapy. I missed going to school. I missed my friends. I hated being sick and forced to lie shivering in a thin cotton gown on a hard table under the pea-green colored photon beam linear accelerator for what seemed like hours, though treatment only lasted a few minutes. I hated losing my hair and being sick on the ride home.
Each day as I waited for my appointment, I wrote in a black composition notebook. I poured my fears, anger, and hurt onto those pages. My notebook became my refuge and companion during those long months. Looking back, that black notebook helped me process my experiences on some level. Once treatment ended, my life went on though my family rarely spoke of my illness. At some point, perhaps when I went to college or law school, I tossed my notebook. Why would I ever want to save such a thing?
Thirty-five years later, I received my breast cancer diagnosis and began recording my story again in a journal my daughter gave me. I didn’t know then that I’d eventually write a book, but I knew how important it was for me in 1981 to write my story. I regretted not saving that notebook. Yet, over the years that I wrote Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists, I’ve come to understand more profoundly how writing helps in the emotional and psychological healing after illness or other trauma.
Writing to heal requires courage. When we write to confront life’s many hurts, losses, disappointments, or illnesses, we have to go underground. We have to get dirty. We have to go down the cellar stairs and open that cobweb-covered trunk in the corner. When we do that, even though it’s hard, scary, and soul wrenching, calm and peace eventually replace the fear. And the healing begins.
I lead journaling workshops for cancer support organizations, and I see the healing manifest itself. I often start with a prompt and suggest that the participants write whatever bubbles up. Something always does. By the end of each workshop, the participants leave feeling lighter, calmer, and perhaps more resolved, even if their writing came with tears that day.
To individuals who want to write their stories, my best advice is to start. Make a commitment to write at a set time each day—for five or ten minutes at a time and go from there. Consider taking a creative writing class. Finally, invest in some good craft books. Here are a couple of my favorites: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; and On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
A breast cancer diagnosis at forty-nine forces Christine Shields Corrigan, a wife, mom, and meticulous list-maker, to confront her deepest fears of illness, death, and loss of control as she struggles to face cancer again. From the discovery of a “junky” cyst, to chemotherapy and surgery, sleepless nights filled with rosaries and “what ifs,” and shifting family dynamics, her adult experience mirrors her teen bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with one exception—she no longer has parents keeping her in the dark.
With the ghosts of cancer past hovering around her, Chris falls into the same overprotective traps her taciturn Irish-Catholic parents created, striving to keep her family’s life “normal,” when it is anything but, and soldiering through on her own, until a neighbor’s unexpected advice and gift move her to accept others’ help. With fierce honesty, poignant reflection, and good humor, Chris shares a journey filled with sorrow, grace, forgiveness, and resilience, as she winds her way through cancer for the second time. Again offers practical guidance and hope to individuals that they have the strength to forge a path beyond a diagnosis.
Christine Shields Corrigan is a two-time cancer survivor, wife, mom, and author of Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists . In addition to Again , Chris has published a number of lyrical and practical essays where she gives voice to the beautiful ordinary. Her work about family, illness, writing, and resilient survivorship has appeared in anthologies, magazines, and other publications including, The Brevity Blog, Grown & Flown, Horn Pond Review, The Potato Soup Journal and Anthology, Purple Clover, Ravishly.com, Wildfire Magazine, and the Writer’s Circle 2 Anthology.
Chris’ essay, “Not Back to But Forward,” about how her cancer experiences helped her cope with COVID-19 is included in (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic (edited by Joanell Serra and Amy Roost), an anthology that draws together the stories of 52 women across the US during the Covid-19 pandemic (March 2021). A graduate of Manhattan College and Fordham University School of Law, Chris built a successful career as a labor and employment law attorney and as a legal writer and editor. After surviving cancer in midlife, Chris became a freelance writer. She also teaches creative nonfiction writing for an adult education program, provides writing workshops for cancer support groups, and is the chair of the programming committee of the Morristown Festival of Books. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
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