My Fairy Tale Survival Kit for Cancer (& Other Real Life Crises) – By Gypsy Thornton

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)

Fairy tale resource: Outfoxing Fear: Folktales From Around the World by Kathleen Ragan
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.

Baba Yaga The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales Introduction and translations by Sibelan Forrester With contributions by Helena Goscilo

As regular readers here know, Baba Yaga has been a favorite of mine for many, many years, largely in part because of her primal aspect as well as her dual nature. Discussing the beautifully illustrated yet harsh stories in The Wild Witch of the East, gave my son and I something of substance to talk about that didn’t feel like like a waste of suddenly-very-precious time together. They gave us a much-needed break from talking about cancer, pain, illness, doctors, hospitals, fears, and death. It was also an avenue to feel other emotions without guilt; to be shocked, disgusted and delighted, to laugh and to be real together without creating more exhaustion or focusing on very real fears. The raw yet lyrical advice to mundane and heartfelt questions in Ask Baba Yaga was another source of relief for me. The Baba’s mythic (and sometimes feral) replies can be applied to an array of human experience and I found I was able to think about things I needed to in a fresh way. That different lens helped me see beyond my self-focus and not get so overwhelmed. Fairy tales tell resonant truths and offer hope for the journey. Baba Yaga makes sure you pay attention to those truths and illuminates the path with flaming skulls. It’s exactly what I, and my family, needed.

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).

 White as Snow by Tanith Lee, Terri Windling (Introduction)
I quickly found there is this incredible pressure to “be an inspiring role model” when having “brave and radical surgery” (apparently a common pressure for breast cancer patients). But though I might have looked brave going into it all, I didn’t feel brave. It isn’t thrilling to “avoid death”, it’s exhausting. I couldn’t do basic physical things and my brain had trouble putting the most elementary sentences together. (For a writer-reader this is very distressing!) I couldn’t manage calls or visits; reading was hard; emails, news and social media were best avoided. The last thing I felt able to do was support and cheer others on, let alone write posts or a book (yes, I was asked) to “chronicle my inspiring journey”. My stress was massively increased — the exact opposite situation my long-term survival is dependent on. Having also had to move house just days before the surgery, I had purposely unpacked my Snow White book collection where I could see them when I came home from hospital, to have them comfort and inspire me, to remind me to believe in new beginnings, to aim for survival despite the odds, and to have grace through it all. But I found myself returning to the image Snow Drop’s death-like sleep and her lack of choice about it until that apple piece was dislodged. I knew I wouldn’t be fully recovered until the cancer — and its poisonous effects — were completely gone from my body. Prior to diagnosis I was very fit and ultra-healthy (according to doctors). I had even maintained an excellent “anti-cancer” diet for many years, yet I still fell victim to the disease. Given that my chronic sleep issues and long-term stress likely had a big influence on my getting cancer in the first place, I knew I needed to fix that as a priority. Right then I gave myself permission to side step all of the pressure, build a cocoon of social silence and let myself sleep instead. Being able to think of this process as my season of hibernation and healing, so I could eventually bloom again, has truly helped change my thinking, and made it easier to get something my life depends on right now: lots of good quality, healing sleep. It’s going to take a good long while, so if I don’t get back to you, assume I’m sleeping… zzzz…

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.

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 Linda Raedisch; The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury; #FolkloreThursday.

Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year

Time becomes uber-precious when Death leaves a calling card; it shifts your perspective. Getting my kid clean every day is suddenly nowhere near as important as helping him mark occasions and nurturing a ‘habit of Wonder’*. I realized that paying attention to our place in the world via seasonal traditions, lore, rituals and story, helps us feel part of it. It lifts our lives out of the mediocre and shows us how we can make a difference — something I really want my son to understand. Doing this gives our story more, well, magic. But it’s tough to commit to. Making magic is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort, and feels twenty-times harder when you are sick. Despite the wisdom of ‘give yourself a pass this year’ (advice which has great merit) I did my best to make magic this Samhain/Halloween and Christmas/Yule season for my little boy. It made me realize that even the most mundane of us, in the most undesirable situation, can work magic, if we try. While we may not be up to creating coaches out of pumpkins, just a touch of homemade enchantment can transform the world around us. It just doesn’t come free. Not even the gifted get off doing magic for no price. As with most things worth doing, magic is 90% (or more) hard work. But despite the limited strength and energy dealing with cancer dishes you, it truly is worth it. My mundane ‘efforts-by-human’ look and feel like REAL magic, to my son but also, surprisingly, to me. Turns out, those endorphins that flood my system when I see shiny eyes taking in wonder, have a magic of their own: they’re one of the best cancer fighters on the planet.

6. Look for breadcrumbs when you’re lost (they’re everywhere!)

Fairy tale resources: Firebird by Mercedes Lackey; Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey (an ongoing historical-fantasy, fairy tale-based series).

Firebird (The Elemental Masters Fairy Tales)

When I got my diagnosis, I found I had to make a lot of life-altering decisions (for me and my family) very quickly. To my dismay, I learned that if I didn’t ask the right questions, certain things were never explained and yet it was my responsibility to figure all this out. I have spent  weeks worth of hours studying medical papers and texts, trying to understand current cancer research and my options so I can make the best decisions, but there are no right answers — or guaranteed treatment. This weighty research is hard enough pre-surgery but afterward, when treatment can get very complicated, and you have to discuss and decide while in pain, with a brain that is in an awful fog, feeling like your survival depends upon your decisions, it can drown you. I needed a brain break. At first I tried my usual route — fairy tale study and research — something I have always greatly enjoyed but instead I felt suddenly stupid, unable to concentrate and it only resulted in exacerbating my stress — I couldn’t even do what I loved anymore! Disillusioned, I picked up an old fairy tale novel I had never gotten around to reading, wondering if I should donate it to a thrift store. It was an Elemental Masters novel, a series I’d always considered a light read for a younger audience, but flipping through the first few pages, something caught my eye. I was able to read and enjoy it and — surprise! — there was enough fairy tale ‘meat’ for me to chew on when I needed it. Even on the ‘good’ days, when my neurons were firing more normally, I found myself inspired to pursue plenty of research crumbs. It actually brought tears of relief to my eyes and I proceeded to hunt down others in the series and carried a book with me to every doctor’s appointment so I could escape the stressy-go-round my brain would spiral into there. I would go so far as to say these books helped me find my way back to myself and my ‘tell-a-tale’ heart… (Heh.) Once there was a girl who never went anywhere without a book of stories in her hand. Wherever she went, she always had with her somewhere she wanted to be…***

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.

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales

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?

*A ‘habit of Wonder’ is the best term I could think of to describe having a constant awareness of the potential of Wonder in a situation and nurturing it.
** A comment on the New York Times’ printing of the title story from A Wild Swan and Other Tales (Cunningham) caught my attention and gave me excellent food for thought on this subject. I have included the relevant section below. Story at this link for context:
I believe the story’s ending is profound: the wing has developed an autonomous nature as any unintegrated archetypal complex is prone to do. This mysterious condition is often populated with (usually hidden) evolutionary vestiges that become symbolic at best, but more commonly just uncomfortable, when, in the modern era, their significance is rendered banal by confusion and ignorance. (Excerpt from comment by BC_ OR from Portland Oregon in Oct, 2015.)                                          *** This is a paraphrase of a JK Rowling quote. Also see these other great reasons for always carrying a book.
We’d like to thank Gypsy Thornton for sharing this, and giving us permission to feature her piece on site — we know it will help so many people, and we’re sharing this for all of our beautiful friends going through similar things right now. We hope Gypsy’s words will help and heal, where ours flounder and fail — thank you Gypsy!

Human/zombie hybrid who wishes she had tastier brains to snack on while writing. Grows her own hair. Also known as the Fairy Tale News Hound of Once Upon A Blog (established April, 2009) - sniffing out all forms of fairy tale news and events (feel free to throw her a bone if you're so inclined). Founding member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society (AFTS) and still serving on the committee, she is the AFTS Member Ezine Editor and Designer. This Fairy Tale News Hound put bread on the table by working behind the pixie dust in the Disney Animation studios, though she could never completely hang up her toe shoes, or lose her homesickness for Oz. Often found knee deep in story and visual development, art projects by her students and the pitter patter of rescue-feet, she still regularly talks to puppets. It is abundantly clear to those who share coffee with her, that she has been continually obsessed with fairy tales from a very young age.

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