She is a two-time cancer survivor, wife, and mom. She gives a voice to the beautiful ordinary in her lyrical and practical essays. Her work about family, illness, writing, and resilient survivorship.
In addition, she is a graduate of Manhattan College and Fordham University School of Law. She teaches creative nonfiction writing for an adult education program, provides writing workshops for cancer support groups, and serves as the chair of the programming committee of the Morristown Festival of Books.
‘Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists’ is a compelling read and a much-needed book. What made you want to write your story, and then share it with the world?
I wrote “Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists” for several reasons, both external and internal. The easiest external reason is that I wrote Again because my surgical nurse navigator asked me to write a “list” of helpful tips or tricks I learned going through breast cancer treatment that she could share with other patients. She really wanted a list. But, once I started writing, I couldn’t stop and three months later I had more than a list. I had ten essays for her. Those essays became the starting point for Again.
Another reason I wrote Again is when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I searched for a book that would serve as a trail map, so to speak, to help guide me through the experience. In my search, I found plenty of books written by medical professionals about cancer, its diagnosis, and treatment. I found celebrity cancer narratives. I found beautiful memoirs about the meaning of life written by individuals who died—from cancer. I found plenty of pink, inspirational guidebooks and journals. I didn’t find those books helpful. So I decided to write my own in the hope that when other individuals hear: “I’m sorry, you have cancer,” some of my experiences may resonate and help them.
The more complex, internal answer is that I knew I would never heal emotionally and psychologically if I didn’t write Again. When I was a teen, I didn’t speak about my feelings or fears. My pathological ability to compartmentalize, organize, and avoid worked well for thirty-five years. Then it didn’t. My systems crashed, burned, and shattered many of those whom I hold most precious. This book gave me the grace to let go of old hurts and fears and to forgive.
That required a great deal of digging deep and coming to terms with some unpleasant memories, but it made for a more rounded and relatable story as an email from a young survivor who had Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teen made clear to me. She wrote:
I have lived in fear for years… anticipating that one day, I would face a secondary cancer linked to the treatments that had been administered. This led to many discussions with my care team to help me plan for the possibility.
Still, I could not shake the fear of possibly having to go through the cancer experience again. That is, until I read your words. Your words, your book, have helped me see that my biggest fear is something that can be managed if it comes into my life.
It wouldn’t be easy, as I’m sure your experience wasn’t. But it would be possible.” That’s why I wrote Again.
In your book, a neighbor’s well-timed advice changes the course of things for you, can you tell our readers a little bit about that, and what it meant to you?
When I look back on my cancer experiences, I see now how certain moments transformed me. My encounter with my neighbor was one of them. I’ve always been a doer—the one who volunteered to stay late to clean up after a swim meet or school event, to drive one of my children’s friends home from practice, or to make a meal for someone in need—so much so that my children would tease me about my volunteering when they were young and annoyed that the pan of brownies on the stove was for a bake sale, not them. And yes, I made them their own brownies, too.
Of course, there is grace in giving and community service. But, and here’s the thing I didn’t learn until that moment, there is a powerful grace, a humbling one really, in receiving, in allowing others to help. The moment I realized this seemingly simple and obvious reality and began to say yes to others, the more support my family and I received. It came in the form of cards, prayers, meals, blankets, flowers, and a rosary blessed by Pope Francis, among other things. I learned the power of community as a result of that conversation—sometimes, we need to receive with an open heart.
When you did the final read-through for ‘Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists’ what the part that touched you the most and why?
When I was writing Again, I struggled with Chapter 6, “How Not to Tell Your Kids You Have Cancer,” as I had to confront my ideals about how I wanted to parent and communicate with my kids and the not so pretty reality of what actually happened. Yet, on the final read-though, I cried though Chapter 18, “Be Okay,” which shares how I missed that my older son began to suffer from depression during my year of treatment. To this day, the pain I caused him because I was so wrapped up in my own shatters my heart. That’s not what moms are supposed to do; we’re supposed to take of our children. For over a year, my son didn’t share how badly he felt because he wanted to protect me. That’s something I’ll always ache over.
If you could somehow go back and talk to your younger self what advice would you give her and why?
I would tell my younger self not to be so afraid of failing or changing paths. Life is a long highway, and I never imagined at age 54 that I would publish a book. When I graduated college, I had a plan: go to law school, get married, have a career, have children, and retire someday. While I’ve done many of those things, plans change. I often remind my children to remember that nothing is fixed or permanent. If they don’t like the path they’re on or the job they’re in or the major they’ve chosen, it’s okay to change.
We’re so afraid of change and the unknown and of falling gloriously on our faces. Yet, I’ve found that, it’s in those moments or experiences where I’ve learned the most and grown the most, even when those experiences are hard, scary, and ego-bruising. So live fearlessly and keep moving forward. “We are only stewards on this glorious, imperfect planet.”
Do you have another book, or event in the works that you can tell us about?
I’m very excited to participate in another project called: “(Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, which will be published in March 2021 by Pact Press. The anthology draws together the stories of fifty-two women across the US during the pandemic, including Not Back To, But Forward, my essay about how my cancer experiences helped me cope with COVID-19.
I saw many similarities between going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment and the COVID-19 pandemic experience, particularly in those early months–the fear, the concern about one’s mortality, the isolation, and how a single moment in time can irrevocably alter all that’s to come—and I found that I could deal with the uncertainty of the pandemic because I’d learned to live with uncertainty as a result of my cancer experiences. What I’ve found repeatedly is that life’s suffering is never the real or the truest story; rather, how that suffering transformed us is. And, those transformations allow us to journey forward with hope, even in dark days.
More immediately, I will be on the Starstyle Radio Show with Cynthia Brian on February 3, 2021 and will be appearing with author Laraine Herring for a virtual author talk— The Life Beyond: A Conversation about Grief and Cancer—for Book Passage on February 4, 2021.
I also would love to produce “Again” as an audiobook and to continue doing author talks and making connections with others.
Her book is available on Amazon by clicking here.