For some authors, their writing routine is not only sacred, it's practically holy and adhered to with superstitious zeal -- the smallest deviation or break from tradition could mean the difference between a good writing day and a bad one.
While writing East of Eden, John Steinbeck began each day by penning a letter to his editor on the left hand pages of his notebook while writing his novel on the facing page. Toni Morrison awoke before dawn each day, made herself a cup of coffee and watched the sun rise before sitting down at her desk to write Beloved. We writers are creatures of habit -- when we discover what gets the creative juices flowing, we stick to it!
Though my routine has yet to produce an East of Eden or a Beloved, I do the same sort of things: I start the coffee, check my email, my social networks, and then free-write three pages in my journal (to flex my creative muscles), before beginning the day's words. Up until last summer, I enjoyed my routine. I was comfortable in my routine. My routine was... routine.
And then I was diagnosed with throat cancer.
The six months prior to my diagnosis had been a whirlwind of intoxicating career successes. I'd signed a contract with Balzer+Bray for a young adult series and had just formally accepted an offer from Gallery Books for the Summerset Abbey trilogy -- which came with a set of brutal deadlines -- when I got the news from my doctor.
The thought of undergoing cancer treatments while writing the ambitious historical fiction series in tandem with my young adult series was overwhelming, but I could not, would not let cancer define the career I had worked so hard for.
But my cozy writer's routine? That was blown out of the water.
I soon learned that cancer in itself can become a full-time occupation. It takes over your life as invasively as the cells take over your body. Doctor's appointments, medication schedules and radiation treatments eat up the few hours you're awake and functional. How was I supposed to write during all of that?
If I had known how difficult it would be, I might have wavered. But ignorance is bliss, so I poured all my nervous energy into planning out the next five months of treatment and recovery the way a frantic bride organizes her wedding.
My oncologist tells me now that she honestly didn't believe I would be able to write throughout radiation and recovery -- she'd seen how debilitating these particular treatments can be and it wasn't unusual for treatment and recovery to take up to six months.
I had two books due during that time and another due two months after that. Thankfully, the good doctor didn't share her doubts with me at the beginning of my journey and I remained naively unaware of just how difficult writing, researching and hitting my deadlines would be.
Inevitably, my routine changed. Instead of drinking coffee and heading to my desk each morning, I drank one of the three high calorie smoothies I would be downing for the day. Getting enough nutrition during throat radiation is almost impossible and my diet consisted of smoothies, smoothies and more smoothies. Then, for five days per week for seven straight weeks, I'd head straight to my radiation treatment instead of parking myself at my computer to work. Upon returning home, I'd finally get to my desk and write until I could no longer keep my eyes open.
After taking a short break to sleep, I would head back to my desk and write some more.
And on top of all that, I hadn't begun to consider the mind-numbing effects of the morphine, which was pumped ceaselessly through my system from about mid-June until the beginning of November. Morphine made me sleepy, dreamy and lethargic... but somehow, I managed to write through it.
In fact, I wrote through everything -- nausea, mouth pain, throat pain, headaches, and the occasional fits of melancholia and mini rages. My routine became about survival, not superstition or writer's block. But surprisingly, it was the writing that ultimately saved me, not what wore me down.
Edwardian England became my landscape, my refuge, the place my mind ran to when my real life got too tough. The intricacies of aristocratic etiquette during that time, the details of life in the English countryside, and the development of my characters were all consuming. I researched the era until my eyes crossed, and wrote until my fingers were numb. Every scene completed was a triumph, and every chapter finished was a reason for celebration -- and, most importantly, a reason to keep on going. I may have been losing weight, but my books got fat and I met every deadline I was given.
Through my experiences with cancer and deadlines, I've learned a lot about myself, my writing process and my own particular brand of crazy. Most authors have gone through chaos of some kind or another and come up with their own rules for survival. Here are mine:
• Ask for help. Be ready when people ask if there's anything they can do. Most of your friends and family would like to help out but aren't sure how. I made a schedule of people who could take me to my treatments so my husband wouldn't have to miss work every day. I asked a neighbor to help out with the yard work. ASK.
• Focus on your characters. My characters spoke to me with their stilted British voices and I allowed them and their stories fill my mind and take me away from the pain and emotional tumult I often felt. Focusing on something else besides the cancer helped.
• Prioritize. You can't do everything you normally would and get healthy at the same time. For me, health and writing were priorities and so I focused on those two things alone. My mantra became radiation, write, rest.
• Stay positive. I don't know how many times I channeled the proverbial little engine that could: "I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can."
• Dig deep. You are stronger than you think you are. I was.
Through it all, I realized that a break from my writer's routine is not the difference between creative inspiration and the dreaded writer's block -- if your characters inspire you, if your stories leave you breathless, then you'll never have a bad writing day... even if you're high on morphine.
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The actress was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36 in 2008. One month later, after learning she had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene (also known as the breast cancer gene), she underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy, rather than opting for radiation or chemotherapy, she told ABC's Good Morning America at the time. "I didn't want to go back to the doctors every four months for testing and squishing and everything. I just wanted to kind of get rid of this whole thing for me. This was the choice that I made and it was a tough one," she said in the interview. "Sometimes, you know, I cry. And sometimes I scream. And I get really angry. And I get really upset, you know, into wallowing in self-pity sometimes. And I think that it's all part of the healing." In 2011, Applegate gave birth to her first child, daughter Sadie. "She's healed me in so many ways," she told People magazine.
The MTV star was first diagnosed with stage 2 ovarian cancer in September 2005 at just 24 years old, Glamour reported in 2006 -- one ovary, several lymph nodes and part of one fallopian tube were removed, according to the magazine. "I had no idea why this was happening to me. I’m a healthy girl: I’m a vegetarian; I don’t smoke; I barely drink," she told Glamour. "I kept thinking, I have so much to do; I’m not ready to die." One month after surgery, Diem traveled to Australia for the Real World/Road Rules Challenge on MTV. Earlier this year, at age 30, Brown revealed that she is again battling ovarian cancer, People reported. Over the past several months, she's been blogging about her experience for the publication (check out a video of her post-chemo hair loss here). She wrote in a recent People.com post: A year ... If you would have told me that after I climbed an Icelandic glacier on MTV's The Challenge, I would find a cancer-filled cyst, freeze eggs, have two surgeries, start early menopause, go through chemo for a second time and film/post my chemo hair loss process make-up free and bald, I would tell you to put me back on that glacier! However, now I can look back at those seemingly overwhelming moments, happy to be where I am: Rounding out the end of this trying journey, ready to move on from my "frenemy" cancer once and for all.
The Project Runway season 9 contestant (and current contender on season two of Lifetime's Project Runway All Stars) was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 25, Healthline.com reports. He had one testicle removed and then underwent about six months of chemotherapy in early 2009. "One of the things I got from my cancer experience is to be appreciative for every day that you're given," Auld told USA Today in November. "Just the little things in the day. Regardless of if you get to have 10 minutes with your grandmother for the day or you get to call your mom and say I love you. You really have to take those and enjoy them." After his first Project Runway appearance, Auld launched a nonprofit called ROCKONE1, supporting cancer patients and their support networks through fashion, whether that means going shopping together or designing a new outfit, according to USA Today.
At age 27, while auditioning for Broadway's Hairspray (which she later earned a Tony for), the actress was diagnosed with cervical cancer after a routine Pap smear, People.com reported. A few days after diagnosis, she had part of her cervix removed -- a week later, she found out the cancer had spread, meaning she needed to have a hysterectomy. "Shortly after the second surgery, I got the part [in Hairspray]. I didn't have time to be sick -- I so wanted this part," she wrote for People. I repeated over and over, "I'm going to be okay." Now a married mom (via a surrogate), Winkour has had stints on "The Talk" and "Dancing With The Stars" over the past few years. And just this past October, she unveiled a dramatic 60-pound weight loss.
In April 2009, the then 30-year-old winner of Survivor: Africa was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin's disease, People.com reported at the time. He underwent chemotherapy and then a stem cell transplant -- 20 months after he went into remission, in September 2011, according to People, he found out the cancer had returned in his chest. Zohn underwent "smart" chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell transplant in February 2012, Everyday Health reports. "I’m doing great,” he told the publication in May. "Maybe great isn’t the right word. I’m tired all the time, I don’t have a good appetite, I don’t have much energy, I’m weak, I’m skinny, I’m still bald ... but I’m getting stronger every day, and things are going according to plan in terms of my recovery. It’s all par for the course -- it’s just taking a little longer to get back to normal.”
At age 36, while undergoing in vitro fertilization for the third time, the E! News Host was diagnosed with breast cancer. After previous treatments were unsuccessful, she opted to have a double mastectomy in December 2011, HuffPost reported at the time. "If I had chosen to just do another lumpectomy and then do radiation and then do anti-estrogen therapy, which means two to five years of medication, that basically puts me into early menopause, then I would have to put off having a baby for several years," she told TODAY! of her decision. "So that was something we took into account. But to be honest, at the end it all came down to was just choosing to live and not looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life." On Aug. 29, 2012, Rancic and husband Bill Rancic got their happy ending with the birth of baby Edward Duke Rancic via gestational surrogate.
At age 25, Reiser, screenwriter of the 2011 film 50/50, was experiencing strange symptoms, including weight loss, a horrible fatigue and night sweats. Convinced he was diabetic based on a Google search of his symptoms, he finally went to the doctor, who ran a series of tests. After several misdiagnoses, he was eventually properly diagnosed with a large tumor that had wrapped itself around his spine. "You've just suddenly been given the news that your body is attacking itself, your body is destroying itself from the inside," he told HuffPost Healthy Living during an interview for the Generation Why series. "It was like this hurricane just swept through my body and left me in total disarray." Surgery successfully removed the tumor, and Reiser went on to write 50/50, which was inspired by his experience, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and real-life friend Seth Rogen.
The star of A&E's series "Paranormal State" announced he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past August, at the age of 30, People magazine reported. Keeping his fans updated on social media throughout his battle, he posted this message on December 11: I know many amazing fans have been asking daily for updates on the status of my health. I can say that it has been the hardest year of my life, but I am also incredibly thankful for that. I had to put some of my dreams and goals aside to focus on myself. I'm also thankful for that. Although I feel that now is not the time to open up about it all, just know that I'm fighting the fight and I love you all!
In early 2010, a spokesperson for the "Dexter" star revealed that he was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, The Huffington Post reported. "I feel fortunate to have been diagnosed with an imminently treatable and curable condition, and I thank my doctors and nurses for their expertise and care," he said in a statement at the time. At age 38, he was just a year younger than his father was when he died from prostate cancer at 39. "I think I’ve been preoccupied since I was 11, and my father died, with the idea of the age 39: Would I live that long? What would that be like?” he told The New York Times in 2010. "To discover that I had the Hodgkin’s was alarming, but at the same time I felt kind of bemused, like: Wow. Huh. How interesting." In April 2010, his wife Jennifer Carpenter said that the actor was "fully recovered," according to the AP.
The Australian singer, now 44, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. "Everyone’s story is different. It depends what the cancer was, how it affected you, the treatment you had. There are so many variables but for a lot of people, myself included, it’s not like it happened, it was dealt with and it stops," she told Metro in 2010. "I have reminders of it every day so it definitely affects my life in a small part, so you just have to adapt and do things slightly differently ... just deal with it and move on."