2018 will forever be the year in which I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. Having now had a double mastectomy, and continuing ongoing treatment, I can now officially say I am a breast cancer survivor.
I wish I could say I am feeling strong and confident and I have a new zest for life. Maybe that will come, if I’m lucky, but I’m certainly not there yet. I am clear, however, on one thing: fairy tales remain integral to my life; and by “life” I mean living beyond “surviving”.
Everyone’s experience with cancer (and other life-threatening issues) is different but there are commonalities too, so to that end, here’s my home-spun, Fairy Tale Survival Kit. I hope you find it useful.
(Note: I’ve included books and resources that were touchstones for me for each point. I suggest substituting resources that speak personally to you.)
My Fairy Tale Survival Kit for Cancer (& Other Real Life Crises)
1. Be the one who learns what fear is (and face it)
This book, written in direct response to the 9/11 attack in the US, and its aftermath, was especially helpful in exploring different cultural attitudes to fear and death. The tales really did have the effect of making me feel less trapped in my too-many thoughts, and eventually became a great way to talk about those specific fears with my son in a less direct way. Reading these fairy tales, especially, “grim-with-humor” stories to — and with — my son, gave us a way to talk (and think) about our very real fears without directing addressing my cancer. Seeing the way different cultures deal with various fears made us feel less isolated and encouraged us to think differently about facing our own very specific ones. Reading these tales also encouraged the first real laughter I had after my diagnosis and surgery — something vitally important to “living life beyond surviving”.
2. Ask Baba Yaga to tell you her stories (and listen to her advice)
Fairy tale resources: Baba Yaga – The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales – Introduction and translations by Sibelan Forrester, with contributions by Helena Goscilo and Martin Skoro and a foreword by Jack Zipes; Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldy Advice For Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia.
3. Learn to use sleep as a weapon (avoiding poison apples isn’t as easy as you’d think)
Fairy tale resources: Snow White variations & articles (papers, books, movies, novels & some deep thinking – Link 1 – history & Jung, Link 2 – Zipes & Tatar on the tale, Link 3 – a writer/psychologist explores problem resolving as a married Snow White, Link 4 – Novel: White As Snow by Tanith Lee, Link 5 – Movie: Blancanieves (released Blu-ray/DVD 2012) directed by Pablo Berger, Link 6 – Picture Book: by Benjamin Lacombe, Link 7 – ‘The Other Sleeping Beauty‘ by WillowWeb).
Note: A quick shoutout to those beyond my close family who have continued to send encouragement in many forms without pressuring me to respond over the weeks and months, especially Lisa, Louisa, Tahlia, Jack and Gina — a sincere THANK YOU to you very special people! It means more than I can say to have you be steadfast in your support despite the silence from my end. ❦
4. Know that your tale matters (you don’t need to be a 7th son of a 7th son)
Fairy tale resource: Folk by Zoe Gilbert.
This book is in my top three of 2018. Though I’m certain I would have loved this book at any time, reading it at this crisis point was extremely helpful, and resonated right when I needed it. It reminded me that hardship doesn’t mean an absence of magic and wonder. While the cycle of stories in Folk that take a generation to unfold, have as many happy endings as not, wonder infuses every mundane life and, to me, that felt both accessible and oddly reassuring. Unlike many modern reworkings of fairy tales and folklore, Folk does not continuously focus on a single person; there is no ‘hero’ or ‘destined one’. Any one — every one — of the community is touched by wonder — be it horrific or fantastic, no matter how long or short the life, no matter how stupid or smart, no matter how well or unwell, no matter how gifted or talented — or not. Where many retellings and collections focus on ‘the special’ for fairy tale and folklore to make a difference, this book focuses on ordinary people. With so much of my life having been changed and taken away, this made it feel like fairy tales were still accessible to me and that wonder is always close by.
5. Be your own fairy godmother (don’t wait for magic to come to you)
Fairy tale resources: The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year by
6. Look for breadcrumbs when you’re lost (they’re everywhere!)
7. Know that a leftover wing doesn’t have to be a curse (neither do scars)
Fairy tale resource: A Wild Swan And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
While a double mastectomy is about more than losing body parts, what I didn’t know is that it can also make you feel like an “unwoman”. I never expected this. I thought the physical challenge would be the hardest part. Despite feeling very different from most folks my whole life, this was the first time I truly felt less than human. Reconstruction (a ridiculously painful, debilitating and still!-onging process of many months), seems — to me — only to underscore the fact. I finally started to find my feet again (so to speak) when I considered the little mermaid and the prince left with the wild swan’s wing (note: a wild swan’s wing). In Michael Cunningham’s tales the characters tend toward self-indulgent victims of curses or magic; they are sad, lonely and often unable (or unwilling) to change their circumstance. The more I read, the more I found myself annoyed that the aspect of wonder each character lived with, was unappreciated, even hated. It wasn’t until I came to the line in the title story of the wing curling itself on the sad prince’s form that I realized I was guilty of heading down the same path.** Different may mean “something wrong” to most people, but it doesn’t have to. It’s taken a while but I’ve finally realized, with a different (to “normal”) silhouette and extensive scars (outside and in) comes new opportunities – if I do something about it. I can’t be the “old me”. There’s no going back. But the “new me” doesn’t have to be tragic and feel cursed. I find I now have more realistic expectations of myself and others, but also appreciate those moments of wonder and magic much more. Maybe I’m a little distorted in form — I’m not used to it yet — but I can more easily see the wild in me now.
My journey through these particular woods has a long way to go but I’m grateful for every step forward. Clearly my tale isn’t quite done yet… Have fairy tales ever been helpful to you in a real life crisis?