When author of Vegetarian Vampires and What We Can Learn From Them Jennifer McDonald was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2013, it came as a huge shock – there was no family history of the disease and she was living a healthy, active life. Jennifer threw herself into treatment and began blogging about her ‘adventure’. The wisdom and humour of her posts – such as Dying and Other Inconveniences and Cut, Poison, Burn … and Laugh – attracted a following of people who were facing all sorts of life crises. Jennifer’s new book, My Big Breast Adventure: Or how I found the Dalai Lama in my letterbox, is a compendium of the blog posts that fortified the will of her readers and herself. As Jennifer says, ‘Blogging my experience perhaps even healed me’.
Do you remember the specific point at which you decided to start recording your experiences of undergoing breast cancer treatment? Have you always turned to writing in difficult times?
About two years prior to diagnosis I’d started a blog on my Epiphany Communication website so that I could get into the habit of regular writing. I was going through a particularly difficult time at work and started posting on Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, trying to apply the guru-like advice to my own dishevelled life. These posts became my first book – Vegetarian Vampires and What We Can Learn from Them – with the last post on Saturday’s Law of Dharma being written after I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. That post became the last chapter in Vegetarian Vampires and a pre-cursor of sorts to the My Big Breast Adventure blog which has now become a book also. In both instances blogging on my experience provided a great deal of solace and calming perspective. Up until this juncture, I can’t honestly say that I’ve always turned to writing in difficult times, but I will certainly be doing so from here on in.
What motivated you to compound these blog posts into a book?
Two things really – my oncologist’s reaction to the blog and the comments and feedback from my dear readers. The blog became a way for my doctor to gain greater insight into what it’s like to be a patient undergoing chemotherapy. He said I gave words to the experience and that this was a helpful perspective for him as a practitioner.
The medical world almost entirely focuses on the physical when the emotional, psychological and even spiritual effects of a cancer diagnosis are the greatest threats to a patient’s survival and recovery.”
And then there were the reactions and comments from readers on the individual posts. I posted 32 times over a two-year period and, over that time, the comments evolved from messages of support initially, to more reflective musings on how the things I was saying related to the various life crises of my readers. These crises ranged from divorce to grief over the death of a loved one and the emotional/psychological fallout from a major illness. I think a book might capture those sentiments in a more permanent way, and with more longevity than a blog, able to reach and help many more people as a result. In the book’s Foreword my oncologist even entreats readers to ‘pass the book on’ so that others can benefit. I guess that really sums it up.
Why do you call your experience an ‘adventure’?
I admit it’s a bit counter-intuitive to describe a major health crisis, requiring intensive and protracted treatment, as an adventure. But perspective is everything, at least it is for me. We might not be able to choose what happens to us but we can certainly choose how we view the things that life throws at us. By declaring my diagnosis and impending treatment as an adventure as opposed a terrifying, white-knuckle ride, I was more often than not pleasantly surprised when things turned out to be less scary and painful than I’d been told they would be.
Most people would consider cancer treatment a purely physical process, but in your experience, is there more to it than operations and pharmaceuticals?
Absolutely. It’s part of the reason why I think the blog was such a healing mechanism for me. The medical world almost entirely focuses on the physical when, in my experience, the emotional, psychological and, heck, even spiritual effects of a cancer diagnosis are the greatest threats to a patient’s survival and recovery. In order to address these often-hidden problems you need medical or complementary health professionals who are able to spot them and patients who are courageous enough to open up and to ask for help.
Has your experience with breast cancer made you a more spiritual person?
Yes, I believe it has. It’s enabled me to put into practice a lot of the philosophies I was already familiar with from Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws, Eckhardt Tolle’s The Power of Now and Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, to name a few. After I was diagnosed, as if on cue, the Universe presented me with a whole raft of other authors and teachers with new concepts to explore and apply to my own life – people like Dr Brené Brown (The Power of Vulnerability audiobook), Anita Moorjani (Dying to be Me) and Kris Carr of Crazy Sexy Cancer fame. Whatever I needed always seemed to make its way to me at the right time. Surrendering to that guidance, even being aware of it and grateful for it in the first place, has been a real spiritual lesson for me.
Which of your blog posts garnered the greatest reaction, and why?
The one entitled Dying and Other Inconveniences, for sure. This post dealt with the ‘d’ words – death and dying – the proverbial elephant in the room when you get a cancer diagnosis. Even though I didn’t think I was going to die any time soon, I still felt compelled to face the prospect that it might happen. So few people, particularly the medicos, even brought it up let alone encouraged me to talk about it. It was a really hard post to write because it’s such a confronting topic for everyone. Nevertheless, it also encompassed some lighter moments – references to the Mr Death scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, for example. It’s not that this post received more comments than others, it didn’t – but I knew I’d struck a chord with many people because they, like me, were wondering why we don’t talk more about death, given that the prospect of it is inevitable for us all.
Can you tell us about some of the messages and reactions you’ve received from people who have been following your journey?
Ah, getting comments on the blogposts was the greatest tonic of all! The blog posts received more comments than I expected, many of which will appear in the book. Most often these would be simple messages of support and validation. Others were analyses, if you will, of what I was saying with application to the commentator’s own life experience. The comments I loved best were when someone told me that my post had given them a new perspective on a vexing issue or that my writing about what I was going through helped them deal with something they were going through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. There’s no greater balm to suffering than knowing your take on the experience is helpful and life-affirming to others.
What advice would you give people who have a loved one going through a health crisis?
I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so calm (relatively) if it was one of my family or friends instead of me who got the cancer diagnosis. Being the ‘next of kin’ in this sort of situation is a truly scary place to be.
First off, I’d encourage you to do what’s practical – take over the planning and cooking of the meals, change the sheets on the patient’s bed without being asked, offer to drive said patient to chemo – that sort of thing. It may sound silly but when you’re sick, knowing that the day-to-day things in life are taken care of is a great comfort.
Try not to make your loved one’s illness about you.”
Most importantly of all, though, try not to make your loved one’s illness about you. By that I mean try hard not to project your personal fears and phobias onto the person who actually has the disease. When I was first diagnosed many well-meaning but ultimately misguided people felt the need to tell me about their own painful surgeries or how someone they love succumbed to cancer just last month. Some even told me outright they were afraid that I might die, leaving me in the awkward position of having to comfort them. Definitely something wrong with this picture.
It’s a terrible burden for a person who’s just been diagnosed with a life threatening illness to feel they have put a brave face on things so that everyone around them will feel alright about it. Trust me, the patient is usually having a hard enough time trying to wrestle their own fears and misgivings to the ground, let alone those of their family and friends as well.
As a carer, just try as much as you can to allow the person to be sick or whatever they feel they need to be at this time. This might mean tears and smashed crockery – but try to be okay with that. Don’t put pressure on the sick person to act as if they’re okay so that you can feel better about the situation.
And finally, make sure that you look after yourself. Attend to your own needs to avoid unwittingly giving the patient more to worry over and feel guilty about.
What are your favourite books and authors? Is there a particular book or story that you draw courage and resilience from?
I like a lot of ‘spiritual’ texts for want of a better description. Current favourites in that domain are Tosha Silver’s Outrageous Openness and Change Me Prayers. No matter what’s going on I know I can open either of these books at any time for some relevant guidance or a prayer.
Other favourites are The Alchemist by Paul Coelho (I love the whole concept of ‘heeding omens’ and finding one’s own ‘personal legend’) and The Horse and His Boy, one of the books in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. This, too, is a story of a journey with many twists and turns that could be seen as coincidences, but are actually the result of Divine intervention.