Writing for their lives
Workshop promotes recovery through pen and paper

Cheryl Paletz, a retired nurse, has a tendency to “stuff it,” to take the feelings that surge up inside and push them back down until she’s riddled with anxiety.

So when her husband of 25 years, Gary Paletz, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in May 2018, and when the chemotherapy he received in rural Oregon nearly killed him, something had to give.

“It’s like, I have to get this out because if it doesn’t come out, I don’t do well,” she says. “My stress and emotions are all over the place, and I feel lost and alone.”

After some focused research, the couple found the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and oncologist Brian Jonas. Soon, they had packed up their lives, bought a fifth-wheel vehicle and moved onto a friend’s property in Elk Grove. Gary is now undergoing intensive treatment at UC Davis Health, which includes both inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy.

And here they found help for Cheryl, too, in Writing as Healing, a free workshop of the Cancer Center’s Supportive Oncology Program for anyone looking for a safe place to write whatever needs to be written.

For Cheryl, it was just what the doctor ordered.

“I’ve always loved to write,” she says. “I’ve had several ideas for books in my head, but I never got to it. I felt the need to start writing about our journey. I need to write. It comes from my gut.”

Held twice a month, the Writing as Healing sessions draw people with all kinds of experiences, from addiction recovery, to coping with a loved one’s illness or loss, to personal medical challenges.

“I’ve seen people talk about finding their voice and having insights as they are writing,” says Terri Wolf, a registered nurse and trained writing facilitator who began the program years ago and continues to co-facilitate it. “They see something new for themselves and see a way out.”

The writing prompts that Wolf offers vary from free, timed writing to poems by well-known authors and even games.

During a session recently, Wolf passed around dice with a single word on each side. Each participant shook the dice, then used the words they landed on — like “waste,” “fertile” and “obey” to stimulate their writing. This was repeated for several rounds. Some writers wrote single stories; others wrote shorter, unrelated poems or prose.

Wolf gives participants the opportunity to share their writing with the group and reminds everyone not to critique one another.

“Think of this as a brand new baby,” she says. “You wouldn’t go into someone’s house and comment about the way the new baby looks.”

Brad Buchanan, a retired English professor and two-time cancer survivor, says the approach is very freeing, “a totally different paradigm.”

“It’s all about encouraging the writer to put words on the page and not be judged and to get immediate positive feedback in whatever form,” says Buchanan, who also serves as a co-facilitator. “This is totally different from anything that happens in a creative writing class where, ultimately, everyone knows they will be evaluated.”

Buchanan derives many benefits from the workshop. Besides giving back to “the cancer center that has saved my life multiple times,” he has found the approach unique in terms of helping him cope with recovery from a number of health crises.

The 48-year-old has had two types of lymphoma, a stem cell transplant in 2016 and a chronic condition related to the transplant called graft vs. host disease, which caused temporary blindness that required corneal transplants and that still affects his vision.

Buchanan likens Writing as Healing to a yoga practice.

“Sometimes you go somewhere you had no idea you would go and you say things you never suspected you wanted or needed to say,” he says. “It’s like yoga, which gives you stretches you didn’t know you needed, and doing them makes you more limber.”

Like others, Seanain Snow came to the workshop with a variety of personal and family challenges. Her father has been through prostate cancer and is now battling multiple myeloma. Her 15-year-old son has Marfan syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disease for which he later had a heart transplant.

“There is an immense amount of grief parents experience when our children have health problems,” she says. “We grieve the wonderful, healthy childhood we wanted them to have and all the activities they aren’t able to do. The writing process helps me see and accept those things, and really grieve where I need to grieve, and then move on from it.”

For caregivers like Snow and Paletz, Writing as Healing allows them to be more available to their loved ones.

“There is still a family that needs me to not be stuck in grief in the hospital or wherever we happen to get stuck,” says Snow.

Paletz gets in touch with her own emotions — and needed perspective.

“I am mourning my house, the doggy door, the rhododendrons,” she says, sitting at her husband’s hospital bedside during a recent chemotherapy infusion. “But he is my home, and we are going to get through this.”

Instructions to Writers, Inspired by the Lives of Pat Schneider and Mary Oliver

By Seanain Snow

You don’t have to write
academy-worthy pieces.
You don’t have to read
the reviews.
You don’t have to publish
your works,
you don’t have to type
them up, or edit.
You don’t have to use
proper spelling -
there was no such thing
a few hundred years ago –
nor write in someone
else’s grammar.
No, you must write
from your own heart,
in your own cadence
and your own phrasings.
You don’t have to mind
the meter;
there are no people’s awards
for that.
And you don’t have to educate
your Mam-maw’s voice,
nor de-racialize the south
of your parents’ upbringing,
nor the California of your own.
You don’t have to tidy up
your son’s transplant recovery.
The stitches, once like railroad
tracks, will fade
and fade some more.
But still you’ll never wish
to go inside a hospital
You don’t have to pretend
that you held up well
through it all,
nor that your kids
are doing well
and are remarkable achievers,
when what really, truly matters
is that they are truly,
remarkably, loved.

You don’t have to use
anyone’s words, but your own.
You don’t have to see
the geese, to know that they
have honked their way
past you.
On a cloudy day or
under a darkened sky,
all you have to do is
imagine their V,
guess at their numbers,
delight in their voices.
In the family of things,
yours is your only true voice.
It belongs to you, alone.
Please, let us hear it.

Sing your voice to us,
in prose or poetry,
no matter;
let your words, your life,
fill your pages,
mend your heart,
shine on the cracks
and in the corners.
Be true to your own voice,
your own imagination.
Be yourself.

Life is an Ocean

By Cheryl Paletz

Life is an Ocean
Depths unknown
Waves obliterating…
In-Out, Close-Far, Happiness –
Sorrow, Pain-Peace, Joy-Loss…
Churning, white frothy storm
Danger explodes, crashing ashore.
Changed in an instant,

Life is an Ocean,
Depths unknown–
Uncharted territory.

Overwhelming panic,
Breathing impossible.
The sneaker wave “LEUKEMIA”
Fiercely attacking –
Pulling, Dragging,
Taking, Suffocating
One fierce, terrifying jolt –
Drowning in despair,
Sinking in quicksand.

Life is an Ocean
Depths Unknown
Uncharted Territory.

Moving forward impossible.
Going back not an option.
Stuck, Stranded in the NOW.
Facing a landscape unknown…

Life is an Ocean,
Depths unknown…
Charting new territory.

Hope whispering across the gentle breeze,
The thick misty, morning fog lifting,
Hyper vigilantly living a day at a time
Charting new territory.

Life is an Ocean, depths unknown.

Side FX

By Brad Buchanan

a sleazy B-movie
into which you’ve been cast
for a cameo role
by a famous director
before the auditions
have taken place
because you are special
or have specialized
in getting certain
dramatic effects
a character actor
with a tragic demeanor
who works cheap
and is right in line
with the studio’s
low production values
you play the role
of the unlucky patient
the one to whom
all the bad stuff happens:
nausea, headaches,
sleeplessness, fever,
sweats, constipation,
irregular heartbeat
all the things
they warn you about
before you sign
the legal disclaimer
that exculpates
the respected
script doctor
you make it, somehow
to the cheesy last scene—
unsteady recovery
played as redemption—
that you welcome
because it ends
like everything else
and maybe it’s better
than the chance you missed
to star in your own
chemical bromance