100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.

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At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:

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Fear and resilience: Psychologist shares breast cancer experience

This post was contributed by Professor Naz Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. The article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK blog on Wednesday, 23 March 2016.

What a Cognitive Psychologist Learned About Fear and Resilience When She was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

It was the spring of 2012, and I remember well the exhilarating feeling of being promoted to the title of full professor within only six years of my first appointment as lecturer at Birkbeck University of London. Previously, my research was focussed on understanding what makes us vulnerable to emotional disorders like anxiety and depression and how we can overcome vulnerability and practice resilience. Cancer, however, did not care that I had been awarded a prestigious fellowship to continue my work in the prime of my life, when I was diagnosed with multifocal invasive breast cancer on January 2nd, 2013. I was in my 30s, and my daughter, Ella, was just under three years of age.

Professor Naz Derakshan

Professor Naz Derakshan

To say that my whole world turned around is an understatement because every day since that day my world has been changing in an emotional and physical roller coaster that I continue to challenge. I am a mother and an academic. And I have had to face my mortality so early having a dependent child who means everything to me. While I have so far survived the storm of diagnosis and treatment, the storm, however, never left. The sound of the rain reminds me that lightening can strike again. Will I survive it next time? Or will I be washed away? I am reminded of the anticipation, the expectation: the fear of recurrence. The fear that can distract, interfere and apprehend. “But, you have become an integral part of my life, so I shall take you forward with me”, I say.

Using fear

I feel lucky that I am able to continue my work, but cancer is never far away. I am pleasantly distracted by a paper that is accepted for publication; I marvel that I have been invited to give a distinguished lecture at an International Conference for Stress and Anxiety Research. I start to prepare my talk. I hear the sound of the lightening in the far distance, I stop. I turn to my daughter and start playing hide and seek (her favourite game), and the voice is somehow louder. “I hear you”, I say to my fears. “I feel you. Perhaps you can guide me”. So, I continue, still fearful.

Three years down the line, I still continue to be haunted by my cancer. Like the background music to a movie it’s always there, singing the trauma that I have endured. Approximately, two-thirds of women with a breast cancer diagnosis suffer PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and this can make them prone to anxiety and depression later. I love exercising, but frequently go through chronic fatigue and am still suffering the well-known ‘cognitive decline’ or ‘chemo-brain’. Yet I am expected to function to my full capacity, what the storm left of me. Of course I will never give up, I am grateful for a second chance. And this goes for all the 57,000 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, every year. If they are given a second chance.

Understanding resilience

What is resilience I ask myself? Common perception sees resilience as mental toughness, fighting the fears. It’s about positivity. Yet, this ideology seems far-fetched, the fear is very real. Rather, resilience, I have learned, is about flexibility, adapting and adjusting: accepting our fears, and the strength to embrace and harness them. Yes, we are scarred but the scars do not define us. The scars signal our gratitude and grit, and the fears that mark what matters to us. Resilience helps us listen to our fears. So, how can we learn to be resilient, I ask myself.

Read Professor Derakhshan's original blog on Huffington Post UK

Read Professor Derakhshan’s original blog on Huffington Post UK

I set up the educational Research Centre for Building Psychological Resilience in Breast Cancer on October 2nd, 2015, with this purpose in mind. To improve cognitive function towards resilience using interventions that exercise brain function. Our private group has over 330 members in less than five months.

And our centre’s blog: Panning for Gold, showcases the many fruitful ways our amazing members discuss their growth from the trauma they endure, through works of art, writing, and science. I would not have been able to sustain and promote the aims of the centre without the vital input of Tamsin Sargeant and Vicky Wilkes who run the centre with me. I have learned more from other women than anything in my academic work, we are more vulnerable than we think we are; we are more resilient than we think we are. Because, from vulnerability stems strength.

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