Most people, when diagnosed with a serious illness, keep it to their friends and family, maybe their coworkers. A smaller number document their experience on social media, whether for catharsis, support, or to help others.
But who writes about “after”?
A year ago, I had just received confirmation that I did indeed have breast cancer. After a stressful few weeks of finding a lump, of an initial doctor’s appointment, ultrasound, and biopsy, I spent Thanksgiving weekend in a state of shock and disbelief that this was, in fact, happening.
Over the last year, I have had a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation, along with removal of my thyroid for what fortunately turned out not to be thyroid cancer. I also finished a book, turned in a promotion package, and parented through a pandemic.
Today, I am done with “active treatment.” The breast cancer is gone. Chances are it will not come back, though it could. But it does not feel over. There are physical symptoms. There are cognitive and mental symptoms. And there is a feeling of disconnect between who I was and what I cared about two years ago, and who I am today.
For a while, I have felt drawn to writing about the experience, and about finding my way back to what I hope is a new normal. This is largely a selfish impulse. Processing the experience in front of an audience, however small, feels more psychologically productive than journaling, or joining a support group, among the other usual strategies.
But I also hope that by writing about the experience I can reconnect to my identity as an academic, a writer, and someone who thinks about things. Illness shrinks one’s focus to the self. Taking care of one’s body, and dealing with its demands, dominates the senses. One’s past concerns—the projects one was invested in, the goals for the future—seem suddenly irrelevant.
One’s physical self is only so interesting, however, and the experience of illness, while common, is also mundane. I hope that through writing I can move from the unpleasant particulars of my own body to the broader question of how that experience fits into the world—how at a time when I feel distressingly distant from the intellectual work that has been central to my life, I can reconnect to a larger identity.
And finally, I hope that my writing may be of modest use to someone else. Hearing about the experiences of others going through ordinary life trials—in conversation, in memoirs, and yes, on social media—has been invaluable to me over the last year. Perhaps by doing some of my processing in public, I can perform a similar service. After all, life gets us all in the end.