Writing for Audiences Affected by Cancer

Spiritual nonfiction author and professor Anthony Maranise shares a thoughtful essay about the unique considerations of writing for audiences affected by cancer.
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Spiritual nonfiction author and professor Anthony Maranise shares a thoughtful essay about the unique considerations of writing for audiences affected by cancer.

Handwriting has become a lost art. Of this I am convinced. When I was composing the manuscript of my latest title, I made the choice to hand-write the entire thing. I would then type out my hand-written work bit-by-bit to send to my editor so I could edit as I wrote in real-time. One of the most difficult challenges I encountered by employing this rather unorthodox (at least by today’s technologically-advanced standards) composition practice was simple transcription; that is, literally typing out what I had handwritten. Perhaps you are pondering what made this seemingly simple process so taxing. Was it the monotony? Maybe it was the additional labor? Nope, none of that. It was actually being able to read what I had handwritten, and least of all was that because of poor penmanship. Instead, I had trouble reading my own handwritten work because of tear-soaked smudges strewn about the pages.

 The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction

Heavy is the weight of my latest work. Concerning cancer and the spiritual impacts of the illness, it addresses three audiences in one: those who have lost loved-ones to cancer, those currently undergoing treatment for the illness, and survivors. Having intimately experienced and lived each one of these realities, I bore the weight of this work. Truth be told, that’s why I wanted to handwrite the entire book first; I wanted to “feel” each word, as I have before felt (and sometimes still feel) the agony of loss, the pains of procedure, and the joy of overcoming. Nearly each page, if not each paragraph—sometimes each line—drew out of me either a sorrowful recollection, a poignant realization, or a jubilantly welcome tear of consolation. Throughout the composition phase of this newest work, I felt much, but learned much more—not the least of which being—how to write for various cancer-affected audiences.

My hope is that, in sharing below the valuable lessons I learned along the way, others will take up the pen and write for the benefit of the cancer-affected. Regrettably, we as human persons, learn best from experience—not from theory or some distantly-removed attempt to be empathetic. What this means is that perhaps those best qualified to write for the cancer-affected are those who are… well, in some way, personally cancer-affected. Though I am sure beautiful pieces can come from a talented writer who is not affected by cancer on a personal level, I make no apologies in offering the following caveat-emptor, all the while borrowing from an adaptation on Mark Twain’s infamous line before sharing these insights in writing for the cancer-affected: you should only “write what you know about.”

Recognize the diversity of experiences.

When writing to cancer-affected audiences, it’s imperative, at the outset, to acknowledge, accept, and unconditionally assent to the fact that no person’s cancer experience can or will be the same as another. Those who I am referring to as “the cancer-affected” are made up of grieving persons who have lost dear friends, relatives, or spouses to the illness; persons currently undergoing diagnosis and treatment from the very newly diagnosed to the cured and relapsed to those nearing completion of therapy; and persons who have lived through diagnosis, treatment, and attained remission in any form or for any length of time. If you simply consider, then, the vastness of persons that make up the cancer-affected, you find a surprising unity in uniqueness. This is a vital realization when writing for cancer-affected audiences because as a consequence of this vast diversity, advice from one person’s cancer-experience will likely not be universally transferrable across the whole spectrum-of-experiences. Know this, and make clear in your writing that you do. Doing so at once communicates your humility to your audience and not-so-subtly alerts them that they may have to “reach” to apply your advice to their own circumstances.

We would also do well not to over-generalize cancer-types or cancer-treatments as even these are vast and varied. Cancers generally fall into four categories based on physiological impact and include: carcinomas (affects epithelial tissues), sarcomas (affects deeper tissues and result in tumors), lymphomas (affects immune system), and leukemias (affects blood and/or bone marrow). Within these four general categories are a number of more specific types of cancer – the scope of which is not feasible to discuss in this piece. Consequently, for as many types of cancers as there are, there exists also a vastness in intervention methods. The two primary means with which most are familiar include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, a plethora of other therapeutic options exist and should be taken into consideration when writing for the cancer-affected, depending on the theme of the piece and the audience, of course.

Be mindful of language sensitivities.

We’re writers. We know that language and the employment thereof is both useful and beautiful, but it is powerful. I still remember some of the kindest (and the most hurtful) things that have ever been said or written to me. Language heals, but it can also harm. Within the cancer-affected, there are varying degrees of sensitivity about how to refer to an encounter with the illness itself. The most common way to which cancer-encounters are often referred is in the language of combat (e.g.: “fighting cancer,” “battling leukemia,” “confronting carcinoma”). For many—myself included—there is no issue with this language as those who use or prefer this use truly see and identify themselves as persons caught up in a sort of struggle between life and life-to-come. However, others may not share this preference for the description of so very personal and already challenging and frightening an experience. Since we cannot always know our individual audience’s preferences relating to this, it is best to, in the collective sense, utilize a more neutral descriptor for the cancer-experience so as not to, even if perhaps unintentionally or inadvertently, offend the delicate sensibilities of those we hope to aid by our works. Some neutral descriptors may include “cancer-journey,” “cancer-encounter,” “brush with illness,” or simply “cancer-experience.”

Important also in this same vein is to be intentional and delicate in the ways in which we refer not so much to the encounter itself, but the person who is subject of the encounter. In fact, the ways in which we describe the person experiencing the particular cancer-encounter is paramount in importance because no earthly value is greater than that of the human life. That said, we, in our writing, would do well to remember that a diagnosis of cancer does not suddenly transform a person into a “patient” or a “victim;” nor is a cancer-survivor only a person who has attained remission. In the cancer-affected community, survival begins on the day of diagnosis.

“Temper the Wind”

It is hard to write well without also reading well. A beautiful expression from the 16th century French classics scholar, Henri Estienne, comes to mind as the best way for me to explain this third and final insight. He wrote, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” Here, belief in a Divinity or lack thereof, is not my chief concern, but rather, what advice follows in this idiom. When a lamb has been shorn, this means it has had its wool clipped away from it leaving its bare skin exposed to the elements until new wool grows in again. To “temper the wind to the shorn lamb” means to shield the lamb from the wind so that it does not become uncomfortably chilled. Since the lamb has already given up its warmth, it has made a sacrifice and so should be spared any further discomfort. To “temper the wind,” then, has come to be a reference meaning that one should spare another of any further pain, frustration, aggravation, or sorrow.

In our writings, especially to cancer-affected audiences, we must “temper the wind” by realizing that there is “night-and-day-difference” between writing sincerely and writing with a somewhat naïve attempt at empathy. While it’s absolutely true that the cancer-affected crave compassion, empathy, and comfort as do all human persons, it ought never to be to the exclusion of the difficult, excruciating and/or terrifying realities of the illness and its impact. True, the cancer-affected will not somehow suddenly come to forget these realities, but any writing intended for their particular circumstances or situations which fails to address or even consider these facets of the experience is nothing short of naïve. As cancer-affected persons, we are often transformed, indeed, made anew, into rather intrepid and resilient beings. That does not, of course, mean that comfort, hope, love, and perseverance are unwelcome facets to the experience. In fact, those qualities keep us moving forward in our journeys, however, any writing that attempts to instill or increase these emotive qualities within the cancer-affected need also take into account the “hard-truths” of the experiences, lest the writer inadvertently offer false hope. Acknowledging these “hard truths” in tandem with sentiments of resiliency, hope, and/or compassion will signal to the cancer-affected not only a healthy familiarity with their personal experiences, but a respect for their emotional strength and identity.

The author dedicates this piece in honor of Callie Annalee Adams, whose resilient spirit bolsters my own.

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Anthony Maranise, M.A., BCC, a 20+ year leukemia survivor, is a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at The University of Memphis (TN) and is the author of Cross of a Different Kind: Cancer & Christian Spirituality (Eternal Insight Press, 2018 | Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble). Connect with Anthony via his website: amaranis.wix.com/amjm or on Twitter: @amaranise.

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