Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cancer, Writing, and Procrastination

("Many people hear voices when no-one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing." Anon

     Part of my depression comes from working on a book about overcoming cancer. Titled Journey of a Thousand Miles: Through Cancer to Wellness, the book chronicles my experiences dealing with ovarian cancer and choosing a nontraditional, alternative treatment (Gerson therapy) in the face of opposition from the standard medical establishment. 
© 2001 Dr. M. Walker & Gerson Institute
     When one is faced with a diagnosis of cancer, one should not have to engage in research to determine the efficacy of treatments--orthodox or otherwise. Accurate information and research on treatments across the spectrum should be readily available to all patients in order to make a truly informed decision rather than relying solely on traditional medicine practices which some statistics indicate cause nearly 40% of cancer patients to die from the treatment instead of the disease.
    In the United States the American Medical Association, the American Pharmaceutical Association, and the American Cancer Society have powerful lobbyists who ensure the federal government primarily funds research which supports and underwrites their constituents--at a great cost in the mortality of cancer patients who are not told the truth about the outcome of treatment or the ghastly and often permanently debilitating side effects.
© Devra Davis 2007
     Chemotherapy's roots lie in mustard and other poisonous gases used for chemical warfare in WWI and II. Radiation's treatment is also rooted in war--atomic war. These tools were created for their ability to destroy human life. I personally believe the last thing we should do when fighting cancer is poison the patient and then hope he or she recovers. We need our immune systems more than ever when facing cancer and traditional therapies destroy the tool evolution provided to help us survive. 
     It is my hope that by the time my grandsons have grandchildren the medical establishment will look back on 20th and early 21st century cancer treatments the same way we look back now on the 17th century treatment of syphilis with mercury.
     Writing this book means going back through five years of medical records and reliving the diagnoses, the fear, the opposition and ridicule I received from medical professionals and well meaning friends, and my children's terror of losing their mother. It is also painful.

Book excerpt
I walked across campus in the searing August heat to the Human Resources and Benefits office and spoke with a benefits specialist for fifteen minutes. I told her I had been through an initial diagnosis and surgery for ovarian cancer in 2007 and had just been given a preliminary diagnosis of stage III metastisized ovarian cancer. I had $25,000 worth of life insurance coverage, and if I died while still in the employ of the University and the State of Washington my daughters would split the sum. I asked her to please explain the procedure to me, so I could inform my daughters of what needed to be done to ensure they collected on the insurance at my death. I took notes, avoiding the woman's sympathetic eyes as she explained my executor needed to mail or hand deliver a copy of my signed death certificate to her office and checks would be cut and mailed within two weeks.

I left her air conditioned, artificially lit room and sat on a bench in the shade, weeping. I was filled with sadness and terror as young, healthy, oblivious students hurried by to their next class. I was going to die and it was going to happen soon--a painful death from metastasized cancer.  A totally surreal feeling enveloped me. I felt myself dying and fading away, becoming a ghost in what was left of my own life. 

     The more one cares about what one writes, the more painful the process. One of the assumptions non-writers make of those driven by their nature to write, is that if one is considered good at it then it is somehow easier for them than for everyone else. As someone who has been compelled to write whether anyone ever reads it or I am ever published; with a University degree in English who tutors in a writing lab on a college campus, and grades research papers and university junior writing portfolios, I can say unequivocally: writing is hard work for everyone.
      American author and journalist Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." This is why procrastination is a hallmark of writers. Knowing what we are compelled to do, we will spend hours on our hands and knees cleaning grout between bathroom tiles with a toothpick or crawling around in the basement looking for termites with a mini mag lite and a flyswatter. My procrastination takes the form of a growing obsession with narrow boats and English canals.

Narrow Boaters and Their Blogs
     Somewhere in my Internet forays I come across a link to a boater's web site.  The site is a touchstone--a critical clue to a new field of knowledge for me. The boater's name is Maffi and his blog header and profile offer simple instructions: "This blog has no more importance than the writing on a toilet wall...I am old enough to know better but seldom do. View my profile page only if you let others view yours."  On the far right Maffi asks viewers to consider the words of the great American Patriot Benjamin Franklin: "If you value peace over freedom, you will lose them both." I am hooked.
     Maffi's blog conveys his opinions and thoughts about a wide variety of things, from chimney pots to human nature; the function or non-function of certain locks and bridges on the canal system, British Waterways bunglings, boaters in distress, the beauty of the Oxford canal, and the importance of receiving a full measure pint of beer for one's money, in the local pub.

Maffi's boat  Milly M © Mortimer Bones
 His crusty, curmudgeonly insights reduce me to belly laughs. I concur with his barbed wit and canny ability to uncover human absurdities. Over time I come to respect and enjoy Maffi's slyly astute commentary on the human condition without apology; I witness the kindhearted person who steps in to help boaters in trouble, and who cares intensely about a wide range of issues he makes an effort  to address rather than ignore. Monsieur Maffi is based on the Oxford canal where he lives aboard his boat the Milly M. He attends courses at Oxford University and works for a hire boat company.
     These are all things I discover over the course of a year reading his blog. In the beginning though, it is the bright green and yellow color of Maffi's web page that keeps me anchored there.  He has links to nearly every other boater's blog in existence, divided into those he has met and those whom he has yet to meet.
     As I click on web links, hopping from page to page, I find myself at British Waterways/Waterscape which provides basic information on how to purchase a narrow boat, insurance, moorings, etc. One may purchase a boat but it will not be released unless the owner has obtained a marina mooring or declared one's self as a continuous cruiser. The second option appeals greatly to me.
     I also find Canal World, and NABO (National Association of Boat Owners), where I am confounded by the statement that approximately 16,000 people are retired and living on England's canals! 
Narrow boats at Bugsworth/Wikipedia
     Pure happiness fills my heart! I have discovered an alternative culture underlying the status quo; it is filled with people seeking a way out of the rat race on their own terms--an escape from the dominant paradigm--at a top speed of four miles an hour! After spending several years battling cancer, recovering from multiple surgeries, and losing a year to the gray fog of depression, I have found something better than Ponce De Leon's Fountain of Youth, the Hermetic's elixir of life, or a lifetime prescription for Prozac; I have discovered a way of living which seems like the sanest option since I left Alaska behind and let go of the notion of homesteading alone in the wilderness. (This probably seems like a lunatic idea to most folks but since I was born in the Alaskan Territories and my parents were homesteaders, it is not as far fetched as it sounds). 
     Joy settles in my bones as I realize my main goal in life now is to immigrate to England, buy a narrow boat and continuously cruise the cut as a single hander while I write books and glory in a lifestyle that will remove me from the rat race, allow me to use the skills and self reliance obtained growing up in Alaska, and maintain my stubborn independence.
    In a fever I find I have dozens of tabs open to boat blogs and it is like the book in the movie The Neverending Story. I am lost in cyber-space and I cannot remember where I started from or how to find my way back to the beginning until I recall the vivid green color of Maffi's web page.
    Over a period of days I make a list of the boater's blogs I have visited which offer me comprehensive information presented in an easy to understand manner and whose author shows some stylistic skill at writing. In addition to Maffii, I narrow my choices down to Sue & Vic's Retirement With No Problem; Mo & V's NB Balmaha; NarrowBoat Bones and Andrew Denny's NB Granny Buttons. 
     Sue and Vic along with their dogs Lucy and Meg, are continuous cruisers with many years of practical experience living aboard a NB with a wealth of solid knowledge on canal boat living. Their blog has links to picture albums, fellow narrow boat bloggers, where to buy diesel, setting up satellite TV, and a page about Tesco's grocery deliveries directly to the boat!  

     Sue's pictures offer interesting details for someone like myself who has never been to England, set foot on a narrow boat, or traveled the cut. Her eye for photographic composition is quite fine.
     Retired live-aboards, Sue and Vic share their personal impressions and basic useful information with straightforward detail and lively wit. I post a comment for the first time ever on a blog, asking about single handing as a woman. Sue's answer cheers me as she reassures me it is possible. In the months to come her kindness will lift my spirits repeatedly as I sit in Pullman longing to be on a canal in England.
      Continuous cruisers Mo and V aboard  NB Balmaha share descriptions of their travels with a gentle tongue in cheek humor and very good writing which draws me back repeatedly to find out where they are and how they are doing. I finally post to their blog for the first time when they mention visiting a local library to check out books. Public libraries rank up there with fire, hot water, and the wheel in my estimation of truly great inventions. 
     Mo responds to my post with an email reassuring me it is possible to live aboard, cruise the cut, and patronize village libraries along the way. Thus begins a friendship between us filled with fine humor and insights on the world in general. Mo and V have traveled the earth on giant ocean going carriers, and their experiences make for fascinating true tales. (After many months of writing back and forth, I think enough of Mo's writing skills to ask if he will provide honest feedback on the rough draft of my book. He did, he does, and his viewpoint is invaluable as I Iurch along toward the finish.)
     Mortimer Bones' blog captures my heart in a totally different way. A PhD at Oxford University where she studies the brain, she has a scientist's keen eye for observation coupled with the sensitivities of a lyrical poet.
     Bones lives on her boat and writes a monthly column for Canal Boat magazine sharing her experiences as a  DIY boater. Her web site offers detailed pictures and postings on her boat renovation.  Bones' pictures are some of the most beautiful I've ever come across. 
     Mother to a narrow dog named Boots, her self deprecating humor is a gentle poke reminding her readers not to take themselves too seriously. I am in awe of the intimate way she uncovers the surface of every day things and finds the hidden beauty underneath.
Interior of NB Granny Buttons
     Andrew Denny's blog is the unabridged version of anything and everything related to canal boats--wide and narrow; canals, canal side development and living; marinas, politics affecting waterways and narrow boaters, and historical facts of interest dealing  with the same. Andrew is not living aboard when I initially pick up his blog, but he does get out on his boat whenever possible and he has many years of experience single handing on the cut.
  The only thing missing from my blog picks is the viewpoint and experience of someone who is currently continuously cruising the cut as a single handed boater and who writes about it. Everyone else whose blog I follow is either part of a retired couple, land based, or living on a dedicated mooring somewhere along the canals. A search of boaters web sites from Sue and Vic's blog turns up a single bloke living aboard his boat and continuously cruising since 2005.  His blog is titled, Boats and Cruising "Valerie."  


  1. Now you have linked the blog it`s a good job i`ve started blogging again else folks might think you`ve kidnapped me.XX

  2. Too right! They will be saying to themselves: That cagey American woman has stolen our Les!
    :) XX

  3. Hi Jaqueline, I have just started following your blog, and I love it! You write in a way that leaves you just wanting more! I have just gone through a pretty miserable eighteen months due to a relationship breakdown, but I am now in a new relationship and I am happy again! Keep up the good work. Oh and to hear how you two make each other feel is wonderful!

  4. Thank you Debbie for your kind words. We are truly blessed to have found each other, and sharing our story is a way of sharing much needed hope and love during such dark and trying times for so many. It's lovely to have you along for the adventure!
    :) Jaqueline