Being creative has helped me to heal because as I mentioned, it feels good to create something positive or that you can be proud of, even if that thing is inspired by a negative experience. It might not be something everyone wants to do, but if you enjoy writing, drawing, photography, or any kind of art or movement, throwing yourself into a new project — whether it’s part of introspection or distraction — can be a real mood booster.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Rose.
Sam Rose is a three-time cancer survivor with Lynch syndrome and a PhD student researching the connection between creative writing and cancer survivorship. Her poetry and prose have been published in over 60 literary magazines and anthologies, and her memoir “Gut Feelings: Coping With Cancer and Living With Lynch Syndrome” was released in January 2021. She is the owner/editor of Peeking Cat Literary and Speaking Cat podcast. Find out more about her on her website writersam.co.uk
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’ve lived in Northamptonshire, UK all my life, but my family is originally from Manchester. I’m very close to my parents and my childhood was a very happy one. I’d say it was much easier being a teenager than it was being a young adult, due to the health problems that began after I left university, which I’ll go into later. I studied IT for my undergraduate degree, then did my MA Creative Writing part-time while working at a digital marketing agency, where I still work. And now I’m doing my PhD in the same subject. I’m a writer and have always written in some form, moving from short stories to lyrics to poetry and now also creative nonfiction. I first started submitting my writing to literary magazines and anthologies when I was about 16, and I’ve had over 100 poems and prose pieces published since then. I published my memoir this year, too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favourite quote is “thoughts aren’t facts”. I first came across this in the book The Cancer Survivor’s Companion by Lucy Atkins and Dr Frances Goodhart. The quote helps me to remember to put less stock in my thoughts and realise that just because I have a thought, that doesn’t mean it’s correct or going to come true! And that can be applied to any situation I might be anxious about.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I think I am determined, which always helps when you’re a writer. Being rejected comes with the territory, so if you don’t recognize this and persevere, things can get disappointing very quickly. I’m always hunting for the next challenge or project and keep plugging away at whatever I’ve set my sights on. This applies to my personal life as well — it took me six times to pass my driving test, but I got there eventually!
Another thing I’ve been told is that I’m very good at taking feedback and applying it well. My first PhD supervisor pointed this out to me after I sent her my edited version of my annual review. I was surprised because when faced with a page full of red marks and edits, I sigh as loudly as the next person! But I work through any feedback methodically and — as long as I agree with the feedback and think it’s useful — I try my best to apply any advice and improve my work.
And finally, I have a sense of humor, which has helped immensely with dealing with major problems and being able to write about them. I use dark humor in my writing, which helps me to cope and also gives me something new to work on creatively, and that feeds into my research and my writing career.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
Of course. My life change — which, in many ways, has also come with losses — is that I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010 when I was 22 years old. I had a colostomy bag for five months, and then I had an internal pouch created, which is where they create a sort of large intestine out of your small intestine so you don’t need the colostomy bag anymore. In 2011, I discovered that my diagnosis was due to Lynch syndrome, which is a genetic condition that makes people more likely to get different types of cancer. I was subsequently diagnosed with duodenal (part of the small bowel) cancer and uterine cancer, both in 2018. I had Whipple surgery for the former, where they remove the gall bladder, bile duct, head of the pancreas and the duodenum, and a hysterectomy for the latter. I had my ovaries removed and everything, which has left my partner and I unable to have biological children. At the moment I am out of treatment and cancer-free, as far as I know.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
When I was told I might have uterine cancer in 2018, I absolutely thought it might be really bad and I might die. They told me it was definitely pre-cancerous and possibly early stage — they’d need to do another test to find out. But I thought, what if they’re wrong and it’s worse — what if it’s stage four and this is it? So when I went back to find out and they said it was early stage cancer, I was relieved. The consultant looked at me like I was mad or didn’t understand what was happening, because I should have been upset that it was cancer and not pre-cancer. I was just glad my thoughts about it being late stage were unfounded. Remember: thoughts aren’t facts!
How did you react in the short term?
I reacted differently to each of my diagnoses. The first one was such a shock because I was so young and wasn’t expecting it at all. I reacted by not wanting to talk to anyone about it and snapping at people when they brought it up. I was trying to avoid it. The duodenal cancer was found during a routine gastroscopy and I sort of expected it because they’d told me they had sent away the biopsy and marked it as urgent. So I took that one quite well and as I’d known my consultant for eight years by then, I felt safe with him. The uterine cancer was another surprise, especially as it came the day after my duodenal cancer diagnosis. There was a lot of crying and feeling disconnected with my normal life. How do you balance a diagnosis like that with your work life and routine? Living in both the “normal” world and my own private medical world has been one of the hardest things.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
I did a lot of writing, especially in the summer of 2018 after I’d had my second and third diagnoses and was awaiting surgery. I wrote some poems I still feel very proud of. I find that writing is beneficial because it helps me express things I might not say out loud to anyone else. Plus, it feels good to create something you’re proud of — something positive — out of a negative experience. I also found pleasure in the little things, like good TV or food, or nature. I wrote a lot about the latter, too — especially trees.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
I think healing and letting go is still a work in progress. Because of the Lynch syndrome, I’ll always have to go for annual tests to check if the cancer has come back or sprouted somewhere new, and that’s very tough to live with. But my PhD research has gone a long way towards that and it will continue to do so — for me and also, I hope, for other people. I’m researching the connection between creative writing and cancer survivorship issues such as fear of recurrence, poor body image and more. I’d like to find out more specifically how writing helps me, and how it could also help other cancer survivors. Doing this research has helped me frame my experiences in a different way and given me a new purpose and meaning — my negative experiences could be used for the greater good.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Well, another way writing helps me is that sometimes I don’t know how I feel until I write it down. A poem can surprise me because I could write something I didn’t expect to write or I didn’t know I was thinking. I should add that in this way, writing can also be a bit risky — I definitely wouldn’t say that everyone should definitely try writing about trauma, because it’s not going to work for everyone and some people might find it makes them feel worse — depending on their personal circumstances, how long ago the trauma occurred, and other factors. However, while writing can make people feel negative or upset in the short term, lots of studies have shown it can have positive long-term benefits to mood, outlook and optimism.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
My partner, Peter, has always been brilliant. One of the most helpful things he does is he Googles things for me. We all know if you have a medical symptom and Google it, you’ll find that it might be just a cold, a death sentence, or anything in between. If I was unsure about something medical and wanted to find out more about it, Peter would research it for me. He’s also very logical, practical and reassuring. He always says the right thing to make me feel better.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Cancer will never be something positive. There are people who might say cancer is a gift, or some other platitude, and I think it’s nonsense. Cancer sucks and it kills people, and if it doesn’t kill you it can permanently scar you emotionally and physically. However, there are some positive aspects to take away from my experiences. Like how I’m more grateful for everything I have now and more keen to have new experiences and get things done right now instead of saying “one day…” Plus, I see getting old as a privilege, which is one way cancer has changed my point of view. In terms of how I’ve done that, I guess it’s a combination of time, sitting with the experience, and writing about it both in poetry and in articles. I have written several guest articles for cancer blogs and websites, which helps me to consider and write about my experiences from different angles and gain new perspectives.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I learnt how many organs I can live without! I learnt how important my sense of humor is, and also how much I can withstand — both emotionally and physically. And again, writing poetry helps me to discover things about myself. I wrote a poem about how I keep thinking about my experience, and at the beginning of the poem I wonder why I keep revisiting the same issues: “I am walking by a dark building / What’s inside is bad news. / Why must I always go in?” The poem is a pantoum, which repeats the same few lines by putting them in different orders, so the last stanza is made up of some the same lines, just switched around: “I can never just walk past. / Why must I always go in? / I don’t have all the answers.” And that switching around of the lines made me see that the reason why I kept thinking about my experience and going to that dark place in my mind was because I didn’t have all the answers, so I kept going back into the metaphorical “dark building” in an attempt to find them. The answer was in the poem right in front of me, but it wasn’t until I moved the words around that I gained clarity. So I learnt from that poem, and that also reinforced how important writing is for my self-exploration.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Firstly, I’d recommend time and patience. Especially because sometimes the full emotional impact of the loss or trauma might not hit you at first. I think it took at least a year after my first diagnosis for me to start processing what happened to me, and a lot of cancer survivors say the same — it’s after treatment when people often need the most emotional support. So I’d say give yourself a little time to process everything that’s happened, but do reach out for help as well if you feel you need it.
- On that last note, a good support network is really helpful. Even if you have just one person you can talk to about your feelings and experiences, that can be a great help. And of course, if you don’t want to speak to someone, writing things down can help, too — as long as you have some kind of outlet and don’t keep things bottled up. For me, I go to my partner and to my best friend as my main support system, and I have my parents, too.
- Introspection has been really important for me. I’m an introspective person anyway and I love analyzing myself and finding out what I think about things and why. Of course, writing has helped me with that — just sitting with my feelings, thinking about things head on, with some music in the background and a notepad in front of me. Taking time for myself, and again, processing things, is something I particularly did in 2014–15, so around four or five years after my first surgery. Even years after the event, I found it really useful.
- Though I think it’s important to deal with things head-on, it’s also good to be distracted once in a while. If things are tough — for example if it’s the anniversary of the trauma or change — taking pleasure in small things, distracting yourself with them and remembering to be grateful for them can occupy your mind with something else more positive. I remember the World Cup being a welcome distraction from thinking about my upcoming surgeries in 2018. During my research I’ve found that both writing about my trauma and not writing about it can be beneficial — so facing things head-on and giving yourself time away from the problem both have their part to play in healing.
- Finally, being creative has helped me to heal because as I mentioned, it feels good to create something positive or that you can be proud of, even if that thing is inspired by a negative experience. It might not be something everyone wants to do, but if you enjoy writing, drawing, photography, or any kind of art or movement, throwing yourself into a new project — whether it’s part of introspection or distraction — can be a real mood booster.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I firmly believe there needs to be more emotional support for cancer survivors, especially after treatment, and there needs to be better signposting for the support already available. The reason why I started my PhD is because after my colon cancer diagnosis I felt there was no emotional support for cancer survivors either during or after treatment. Things may be a little better now as that was eleven years ago. I have recently found out there is support available in my area, but it’s so badly signposted that I’m only finding out about it two years after my second and third diagnoses. I’d like to draw people’s attention to the emotional issues of cancer survivorship — not only in a clinical setting, where medical professionals should be able to help people get support, but also in society, so that people know that for their friends and family who have had cancer, their trauma could feel far from over, even though treatment has ended and they may seem fine from the outside. Check in on the cancer survivors you know — they might not be okay.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
It’s so hard to just pick one! I recently read Gordon Ramsay’s autobiography and really enjoy watching his shows, so I’d love to meet him. I’m also a big fan of Jared Leto and his band Thirty Seconds To Mars, and I think we’d have a really good conversation about creativity and success.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website is writersam.co.uk and I’m on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with the handle @writersamr.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!