A Writer's Life with Metastatic Breast Cancer
In unexpected ways, my life changed with my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. To ease the fear of not knowing if I’d have another recurrence, or indeed how much time I had, my goal was to make each day as satisfying as possible--so that when I got in bed at night, I could say to myself, “You did it.”
Some days when I step off the streetcar to go to MassArt & Design where I teach a writing course, Memoir & the Artist, anxiety and fatigue make me want to go straight back home. But as the art students, filled with creative energy, enter my classroom, I feel inspired by them and their hopes for the future.
I’ll never forget the evening when I gave a reading at the school from my poems inspired by art. In attendance, faculty, students and some friends. I was honored to have been invited to present my work, but bald--due to chemotherapy treatments--I was wearing a new wig and terrified that it would slip. What would I do, reach up and adjust it? When you have cancer, you cope as best you can. Laughing helps. Years before, when I went shopping for my first wig, the woman in the salon brought out a synthetic that looked like a frayed mop. Grinning I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”
I try to give back. When referred to a woman who’s recently been diagnosed, I discuss with her everything from the advantages of a back vs. a tummy flap for reconstruction, or the pros and cons of joining a support group. I also conducted a writing workshop for survivors during a Celebration of Life event at the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital where I’m treated. One of the participants asked, “Do you think that expressing this way increases your risk of cancer?”
“On the contrary,” I say, “Writing is one key to survival.”
As for my own work, I made the effort to change my schedule. I used to write sporadically, when the muse called on me. Now, the mornings when I’m not teaching, I sit with my coffee in the usual chair in my living room with a yellow pad in front of me. I stare into an image of visual art that moves me, and I begin: words, lines of a new poem.
Not that I was in the habit of taking my family and friends for granted, but now I’m much more open in telling them how much they mean to me. For years, they have been my support system--from diagnosis through treatment to recovery. I’ll never forget my writer friend quietly reading as she sat with me behind the closed white curtain while I was getting chemo. I do what I can to thank them. I took my mother to lunch. “How fancy,” she said. I invited a group of girlfriends to dinner where I told them, “I couldn’t get through this without you.” Then we all raised our glasses of wine: “L’chaim, To life.”
One of these longtime friends is my agent, Peter Rubie, who encouraged me to write a memoir. With his guidance, I persisted, and the result was Places in the Bone. The book covers my childhood, experiences with relationships and work, and the impact of breast cancer on the facets of my life. I was thrilled when Norman Mailer wrote the following for the cover: “Often beautiful… (the book) reads like a skier on a slalom course full of jigs, jags and quick jumps that capture a good amount of the fine surprises and sudden disasters in (Dine’s) life.”
In testament to his belief in my writing, my agent has just reissued my memoir through Lincoln Square Books, and it’s now available on Amazon. The theme of Places in the Bone holds fast from when I first wrote it: how art has helped me to survive cancer and to thrive. Friends often applaud my resilience. As I share with them new poems, it is clear that writing has sustained me. It is my wish that readers of this blog post will be inspired to expand their own creative voices.