Words as Healthy Weapons

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

Writing doesn’t necessarily cure a disease, but it can be a powerful force in coping with one.

Just ask Sandi Wisenberg, who for the past seven months has been writing about dealing with breast cancer at her blog, Cancer Bitch. Thanks to Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist who shared Wisenberg’s story, and Chicago Public Radio, which is airing excerpts from the blog, hopefully those words are reaching a wider audience.

Wisenberg, who teaches writing at Northwestern and the University of Chicago, told Schmich why she thinks writing helps: “It’s saying, this is who I am. It’s not a doctor making notes about me and putting it in a file. It’s me making notes about myself and making it public.”

And Wisenberg, 51, also thinks writing can be particularly appealing to women who are sick: “Women’s ailments have historically been shameful, private and not something for women themselves to write about.”

But, as Schmich notes, that is changing, “thanks to the women’s movement, breast cancer activism and, now, blogging.”

Wisenberg posts are obviously personal — and often provocative. Here’s an excerpt from a recent post titled “Weeding”:

I’ve noticed in ads for hospitals and treatments there are often photos of crouching women, spade in hand. Look, I can plant now that my arthritis is under control. Look, I can bring new life into the plant world now that my cancer has been zapped. To me these pictures indicate lack of ambition. They indicate Retirement. Retreat from the real world of achievement. It’s as if these people, now that they’re cured or no longer in pain, can, well, cultivate their gardens. They can pursue safe avenues. You never see a picture of an angry performance artist saying, Look, now that I’m in remission I can jump on the stage and offend people again. Or a CEO at his desk saying, Look, now that I’m cured I can fire dozens of people again. Does that mean that ambitious people should not stop and plant the flowers? There’s a kind of giving up of power in planting. You are following rules. The perennials won’t flower all season (I don’t think). The annuals won’t come back even though you want them to. The shade-loving plants won’t flourish in full sun. There is room for creativity: You can be original in your arranging, you can cultivate new species and name them after your friends. You can pollinate by hand, even, pre-empting the bees. But you can’t change the rules.

That’s the difference, I think, between nature and art.

While I don’t completely agree with her assessment of gardening (which some people I know have made into their performance space), her post makes me pause and consider the marketing of disease and how it can establish a rigid set of often disempowering expectations. And it also reveals how Wisenberg’s writing is ultimately empowering her — and her readers.

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