Interview with Diana M. Raab
Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey
Loving Healing Press (2010)
Reviewed by , PhD, for Reader Views (06/10)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Diana Raab about her new book “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.”
Diana M. Raab, MFA, RN was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1954 and received her undergraduate degree in Health Administration and Journalism in 1976. A few years later, she received her RN degree. After twenty-five years as a medical and self-help writer, she’s directed her creative energy toward nonfiction and memoir writing. In 2003, she earned her MFA in Writing from Spalding University’s low-residency program.
Diana is the author of eight books, including her first memoir, “Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal” (2007) the recipient of the 2009 Mom’s Choice Award for Adult Non-Fiction and the 2009 National Indie Award for Excellence in Memoir. Her award-winning work has also been published in numerous literary magazines and is widely anthologized. Her poetry collection, “Dear Anaïs: My Life in Poems For You” won the 2009 Next Generation Indie Award for Poetry.
She teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and facilitates writing workshops and attends conferences around the country, with a focus on writing for healing. She is a frequent panel moderator.
Tyler: Welcome, Diana. It’s a real pleasure to get to interview you today. To begin, will you tell us a little about how you classify your new book “Healing With Words.” Is it a journal, memoir, or workbook?
Diana: “Healing With Words” is a memoir and self-help book that includes narrative, journal entries, poems, and reflections. At the end of each chapter are prompts for readers to chronicle their own experiences. In addition, there are four appendices offering useful reader information.
Tyler: How did you first become interested in writing?
Diana: I was an only child of working parents. At the age of six my parents sent me to sleep away camp with a big box of stationery and instructed me to write every day. At camp I developed my passion for letter writing, a passion that continues today, fifty years later. The next turning point in my writing life was at the age of ten when my grandmother committed suicide in my childhood home. To help me cope with this tragedy, my mother bought me a Khalil Gibran journal. I used to sit in my walk-in closet and pour my heart out onto the pages of that journal. Therefore, early on, I found solace in the written word.
Tyler: Will you explain to us a little about the two different cancer diagnoses you’ve had?
Diana: In 2001, just a month before the trade centers fell to the ground, I was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) an early form of breast cancer. The cancer was successfully removed. Instead of having chemotherapy and radiation, I opted for a mastectomy and reconstruction. Five years later to the date, when returning to the oncologist’s office for my annual blood work, it was discovered that my IgA (immunoglobulin) was elevated. A second blood test confirmed this elevation. My oncologist ordered a bone marrow biopsy which confirmed multiple myeloma which is a form of bone marrow cancer most commonly found in men in their seventies who have had exposure to petroleum. There is no cure and sometimes treatment is necessary, but thankfully, I have not needed any yet. I am followed by Dr. Keith Stewart, of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He is a world-renowned expert and researcher of multiple myeloma. I see him for bi-annual blood tests and bone scans.
Tyler: Did you react differently to the different types of cancer and if so, why?
Diana: Even though both my cancers were discovered quite early, receiving the cancer diagnosis was shocking and emotional and continues to rivet my life. There was no breast cancer in my family. I had taken such good care of myself—exercising regularly and taking an array of herbs, minerals, and vitamins. I did not have any of the risk factors for either cancer. What can I say? I am a medical mystery and anomaly!
Tyler: How did your family react to your cancer diagnoses?
Diana: I am very close with my husband and children so they took it quite hard, but through it all they were incredibly supportive. Because I chose to have my surgery in California, about 3,000 miles from my home at the time in Florida, my husband and I had to leave our children, then aged, twelve, sixteen, and eighteen home with their loving grandparents. It was just the beginning of the usage of digital photos and my husband was able to keep them close to me. My family was extremely positive and supportive, and I don’t know what I would have done without them, since I am an only child and don’t have siblings.
Tyler: Once you were diagnosed with cancer, how long did it take for you to start writing about it, and how did writing about it make you feel or help you to cope with the diagnosis?
Diana: Before leaving for my surgery, my eldest daughter, Rachel, who was nineteen at the time, understood my passion for journaling and gave me a special journal. I began writing almost immediately following my surgery, in between all the buckets of tears and pain killers. I really didn’t feel much like writing, but I forced myself to do so because I knew that down the road my words would be useful. Each day I tried to write at least one entry. My notebook sat on my hospital bedside table. I cherished that journal and many of the entries were transcribed into the final draft of “Healing With Words.” Incidentally, during my post-operative period, I learned to write with new age music playing in the background. I found this very soothing and cathartic.
Tyler: Had you not been a writer, can you foresee how you would have dealt with cancer differently? Even if you had worked in some other expressive medium like dance, or music, or painting, would it have been as effective in helping you deal with the cancer do you think?
Diana: I think everyone finds his or her own way to cope. I believe many of the coping mechanisms we use as adults are established during childhood. My mother’s seemingly innocent gesture of giving me a journal when my grandmother died was a way of telling me that writing heals. Since then, I have used this medium for healing. Today, I faithfully practice the art of journaling and encourage others to do the same. Had she sent me for art lessons or dance, then I might have turned to those modalities. I should add though, that even before yoga was as popular as it is today, my mother took me to local classes, and for me, yoga continues to be another source of strength.
Tyler: Did you experience any strange treatments from people when you told them you had cancer—over-eagerness to help or people avoiding you? It’s one thing to write your story, but how did you tell your story to the people around you and how did they react to it?
Diana: Again, during those early months, I was very private and did not talk to many people outside my family and medical personnel. I was not the type of woman who would talk to the bank teller or supermarket clerk about health issues. One of the most difficult aspects of a cancer diagnosis is feeling the pain my diagnosis caused my loved ones. I hurt when they hurt. My husband knew this about me and was wonderful about minimizing my stress. He made all the phone calls to close family and friends. Those who knew I had cancer were very loving and supportive. Some people were uncomfortable phoning because they did not know what to say to me, so instead they sent cards, flowers, or chocolates. As a nurse, I understood this and was fine with it. Any expression of love was greatly appreciated.
Tyler: Beyond writing, what other kind of support did you have? From friends and family, or did you join a support group for cancer patients?
Diana: Because I had my surgery in California, 3,000 miles from home, after discharge I had to stay in a nearby hotel for two weeks. I was then seen by my surgeon and told I could return home. While in the hotel, I was contacted by a local cancer support group who set up a healing circle for me and I found this very helpful. I cried a lot during the sessions, but it was cathartic. After returning home to Florida, I did not get involved with groups. I am a private person and sought the strength from my husband, children, and some close friends. Being a part of a support group would have just reminded me of my cancer and my surgeon made me believe that it was all removed. I wanted to move forward with my life. I did, however, have weekly sessions with my therapist who specialized in survivors. She was like the sister I never had. I could call her at any time of day or night. She helped me navigate those rough waters.
Tyler: What about your background as a nurse? Do you think that may have helped you look at your situation differently than had you not already been involved in medicine?
Diana: This is a good question and of course hypothetical. There were advantages and disadvantages of being a nurse. On the positive side, I understood the medical terminology and descriptions, but on the negative side, I was also aware of how my situation could go from being a stable to unstable one at any time.
Tyler: You were already a published author prior to your cancer diagnosis, but what made you decide to publish your story?
Diana: My breast cancer diagnosis was a turning point in my life. Through journaling, I realized that life is short and the importance of living out my dreams. One of my long-term dreams had been to go to graduate school. Within six weeks of my surgery, I was enrolled in a low-residency program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and beginning to think about my thesis. I decided to use my cancer journey as the foundation for my creative thesis. It was simply a story that had to be told. As a former medical journalist, I loved educating people on health concerns and thought this was another golden opportunity.
Tyler: Was it more difficult to write this book than others because of the subject matter or the personal nature of it?
Diana: I have always written memoir and personal stories, but the information in this book is much more intimate. Some parts were embarrassing for me to write; at times I felt as if I were hanging my underwear on the clothesline, but I quickly realized that’s what my readers wanted. Reading the published journals of Anaïs Nin helped me open up and write my emotional truth.
Tyler: Have you gotten much feedback from readers? You said you realized the personal information is what readers wanted, but who are your readers? Do you think they are limited to other people who have had cancer touch their lives, or is your reading audience greater than that?
Diana: It’s too early to say, but from the reviews that are already in—people really like the book. Some women do not want to hear the cancer stories of others because they have their own sacred story and every story is different and you cannot compare. Some who have read the book say that it really helps them understand how they or their loved ones would feel if they ever received a cancer diagnosis. One woman said she loved my attitude of being positive and compassionate, in addition to my wry sense of humor. Many people like the combined voice of a nurse and author and look forward to reading a compelling and well-crafted story. In answer to your question, I think the reading audience is broader than cancer survivors—it’s for people interested in reading memoir about real people, having real experiences and making it through.
Tyler: Will you tell us a little of how the book is organized?
Diana: Basically, I have told my cancer story chronologically from the moment of diagnosis to the present. As I mentioned earlier, there are blank journaling pages and prompts at the end of each chapter. I felt it was also important to include my poems, which are strategically placed before the blank journaling pages. The Epilogue is called, “A Tale of Two Cancers,” and is about my diagnosis with multiple myeloma. Then there are four appendices “Writing For Wellness,” “Healing Pages,” “Glossary,” and “Cancer Support Organizations, and an extensive bibliography.
Tyler: Diana, will you share a short poem or passage from a poem with us here?
Message to My Family
The day after I die
and hours after my ashes cool,
find a purple urn with a window.
Purple nurtures my spiritual strength
and windows keep me alive. Remember
I’m claustrophobic and the thought
of being stuck inside a box frightens me,
since I must indulge in my favorite hobby
of people-watching, which sends me
to my journal where I find joy and solace.
Remember, writers need time alone—
once a day my window should be closed,
just once a day after I die.
Tyler: Thank you, Diana. What is the one thing you most hope readers will gain from reading “Healing With Words”?
Diana: I hope readers gain two insights. First, the importance of positive thinking in the face of adversity and disease, and secondly, to understand the power of writing for healing.
Tyler: What is next for you, Diana? Do you plan to write more books? Have you experienced limitations yet due to your cancer?
Diana: It has been said that writers don’t necessarily want to write, but they have to write. I have many more stories to tell. I am very driven and have never been limited by anything, including cancer. The only thing I am somewhat concerned about is losing my sight because that would mean I could no longer read and write as I do now. I have some fresh ideas, but am reluctant to talk about them before signing a book contract.
Tyler: Thank you, Diana, for joining me and sharing your story. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information can be found there about “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.”
Diana: More information can be found on my website, www.dianaraab.com. Also, readers should go to my events/appearances pages. This book will be promoted via the Internet and live interviews. Thank you for taking the time.
Thank you, Diana. I hope you enjoy your health for a long time so you can tell all the stories and write all the poems your heart desires.