Oncology Support Memoir Group at Benedictine

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(Photo by Walt Stoneburner)

When cancer knocks on your door, you open it and walk out into a wholly different world – one of devastating fear, pain and loss, and one (here’s the surprise) of remarkable possibility: the possibility of living in the moment and excising all the superfluous crap that fills your days and keeps you from being present; the possibility of reimagining the past and appreciating it somehow; the possibility of cleaning up relationships and recovering love. This is the message of a new anthology, Holding On, Letting Go, a collection of brief stories and poems written by members of the HealthAlliance Oncology Support Program in Kingston.

Meeting weekly at the Herbert H. and Sofia P. Reuner Cancer Support House on Mary’s Avenue, a group of people living with cancer has been working under the guidance of author and teacher Abigail Thomas to express their feelings and explore their lives in search of the good stuff – not just the happy stuff, nor necessarily the dramatic details of their bouts with the disease, but the stuff that made them who they are, the stuff of soulcraft.

Distinct from mere journaling, memoir involves probing for truth and candor. And that’s where Thomas comes into the frame. Having published two startling memoirs and a book about the art of writing one, and also having an adult daughter who suffered that dreaded visitation from cancer, she offered herself up to the Oncology Support Program for what was slated to be a five-week class in writing. Fifteen people eventually joined. They’ve been convening every Thursday afternoon for coming onto two years now, to share their current work and give each other heartfelt sustenance.


Carol Dwyer, who contributed “The Wrong Line” to the anthology, talks about choosing a support group to attend. “I wasn’t really game until after my brain tumor. I started coming to a metastatic support group and stuck to it. At first I didn’t think I needed it. I had gone two times to a breast cancer support group in New York City. The problem was, they were all worried about their next mammogram, about the ‘what-ifs.’ They’d all been through something; but I had just finished chemo. I was bald, I was going in for a bilateral mastectomy, then radiation…I was sitting there, and I’m like their nightmare. How am I helping them? And they’re certainly not helping me. Like, ‘You’re worried about a mammogram?’ Actually coming and being a part of a metastatic group opened me up to being on a team that…yeah, we’re a little more frail; we’re watching friends die. Then Barbara [Sarah] told me I should join the memoir group. I was writing with friends once a month, but I wanted to write more, to get the habit of doing it; and this really spurred me on.”

As the group’s facilitator, Thomas has the ability to tease subject matter out of people who don’t necessarily consider themselves writers. She gives prompts like: “Write two pages about What Comes Next and How to Like It” or “two pages about Your Most Memorable Indulgence.” For example, working on the assignment to “Write two pages of What You Wish You Had Said or Done,” Barbara Sarah relates how, amidst the confusion and shock of her late husband’s cardiac emergency, she wishes that she’d said and done things a strong patient advocate might have, such as insisting on getting clear information about what his condition was, demanding the opportunity to ride in the ambulance with him, even expressing her outrage at a doctor’s insensitivity.

Craig Mawhirt mentions the obligatory prompt that everyone must write upon entering the group: “two pages on Any Ten Years of My Life in Three-Word Sentences.” Thomas is famous for these three-word-sentence instructions, and the imperative to brevity forces the writer to pare ideas down to basics. Keen remembrances emerge, and the very process of recording them provokes new revelations, new perspectives. The only rule of thumb is to keep the piece no longer than five minutes when read aloud.