How Creative Writing Helped Me Deal With My Cancer

April 30, 2021
How Creative Writing Helped Me Deal With My Cancer

Written by Sheena Hussain

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Torie Croog

Cancer was never on my radar. How could it be? I was a busy immigration lawyer, seeing to my clients; life was passing by just fine. 

That is, until one December day, when my younger sister, Nora, noticed a lump on my neck. 

As soon as I was diagnosed with cancer of my thyroid gland, I knew I had to document this life-changing juncture in my life. For me, documenting was easy; being a lawyer, I had my work diary, a separate court diary, my personal diary, and now, a new one to add to the list—a cancer diary. To treat my thyroid cancer, I had to undergo radio-iodine treatment; this meant taking a toxic pill and being in isolation for three days. I counted them down as if they were three long years. 

When I finished treatment, it of course felt good, but also weird: What was I meant to do with myself now? I decided to take a few months off work, so I had no legal documents to draft. I don’t know why I started writing poetry, but I felt a calling that I must write something, and that’s exactly what I did. 

Little did I know this would be the start of my new career as a poet. 

Cancer often leaves you feeling deflated and cold, so I decided to draw warmth from my childhood memories: my parents—before their marriage came to an end—taking us out on trips or watching over us as we played outdoors. Images from long ago suddenly sprung to life, so vivid and moving that I picked up a pen and started capturing them. There was one set of memories in particular which would prove to be a double-edged sword: my parents' marriage, which later turned into a separation left me punctured. This was the ideal time to grieve and let it all out. 

As I wrote, I realized that something strange was happening: there was a burst of short phrases, cadence was flowing and I was comparing things—metaphors emerging before my very eyes. It didn’t take too long for me to draw the conclusion that this was, in fact, poetry. I was truly amazed! 

Planting Seeds

I believe everything that happens to us is somehow linked, and often, we’re too engrossed in life to make the connection. At age 6, I started reading and reciting the holy book—the Quran, a very rhythmic book full of sophisticated meter which Muslims read—in its original language, Arabic, and was often left mesmerized by the melodious sounds. (My ‘healing verse,’ as I call it, was verse 2:186. It became wholly my verse, so much so that I wrote a poem about it.) My love for language only grew from there: When I was 8, a kind neighbor used to read to me from something that resembled a Bible; only later did I learn it was The Complete Works of Shakespeare, whose sonnets have stayed with me ever since. 

The seeds for poetry were there all along, and cancer ended up making them bloom. 

The Panacea of Creative Writing

For a while, it was just me and poetry. I carried on writing and not a single soul was privy to what I was doing. Some days, “cancer fatigue” rendered me physically unable to get myself moving, so I sat in my armchair watching the view from my window. Writing about the birds that would visit me and the trees standing tall gave me a chance to connect with nature at my own pace. 

As levothyroxine—which I now have to take for the rest of my life—became part of my daily existence, so did writing. I decided to share some of what I was writing to others. When Nora learned what I had been pouring my heart and soul into, she spurred me to share my poetry and narrative to the wider world for others to read and take comfort in as they walk their own cancer journeys. In 2018, I self-published my book, “Memories of a Poet: My Road My Recovery.”

I truly believe it is only a matter of time that doctors will be prescribing more creative panaceas as opposed to traditional drug remedies. Recently, I was fascinated to learn how the holy book is played to patients in hospitals in Pakistan. Some who believe in the book say the rhythm connects with the rhythm of the heart, making some kind of chemical reaction happen that can cause those in a vegetative state to respond.

From my own personal experience, I’ve found that writing helps keep the stress, anxiety, and depression away, which otherwise would increase poor health and lead to a dark abyss. This is something that I encourage in my support group and advise women to take leadership of their own health. When I facilitate workshops, I often create writing prompts which will link to past events with a view to unlocking the present. My attendees have often left feeling mentally decluttered, and subsequently the mental impact that has on my wellbeing is extremely positive.    

Whether you decide to journal or write poetry, writing will act as a means for you to discover the internal truth of what is happening deep within you. By using words you dig deep and connect to your soul, and it is at this point you are able to derive meaning of what happened and why it happened as opposed to just ruminating on emotional events. For example, writing helped me realize that my parent’s separation had a big impact on me by suppressing the emotions, which I believe may have contributed to my cancer. Their separation left me punctured, and this was the ideal time to finally grieve and let it all out. 

Why Everyone Should Give Creative Writing a Shot

If you’re wondering whether creative writing is right for you, my advice is to just try it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You are completely in control of what you write and how often you write, and remember, no one has to see your writing if you don’t want them to. 

Connecting to your own narrative is a powerful tool of coming to terms with the twists and turns of your life.  When you get into the groove of writing, it can transform you and give you a new perspective on life: how to think, how to rebuild and to live again. My outlook on life has seen a drastic shift from what it was like when I was a lawyer. I am more attuned with my surroundings whether that is nature or people. My poetry has transformed me and has taken me to new avenues. I am involved with more grassroots initiatives and empowering people to better their health and lives through owning their own personal stories. 

Poetry gives me agency. I’m still coming across new words which feed my poetry; the deeper meaning as to why particular words are chosen remains with the poet. My poetry keeps me mentally focused, heals and humbles me whenever life throws the odd adversity.

You don’t need armor to survive. You don’t need to stuff down the hard emotions until you can no longer feel them. You just need to express them.  

And to do that, all you need are powerful words and rhythm.

 

Sheena Hussain is a British-born Pakistani poet, essayist and cancer advocate from the UK. A non-practising immigration lawyer who came to poetry after being diagnosed with cancer herself

Sheena is no longer a practising lawyer.  She dedicates her time to writing poetry, writing essays on cancer & recovery, and facilitates creative writing workshops. She runs a support group for women called Females:CAN in the UK.  You can find Sheena on Instagram @poetrybysheena or her website at www.poetrybysheenapoetrybyname.com

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