April Stearns was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer when she was 35 and her daughter was 3. She started blogging when her daughter was born and shifted it to a parenting-with-cancer blog during treatment and recover.

“Writing helped me process all that cancer brought into my life and in turn heal,” she explained. Ultimately her writing led her to create Wildfire Magazine, which focuses on the struggles and concerns of those diagnosed with cancer in their 20s  through 40s.

Recognizing that writing is cathartic, she is currently offering an online writing retreat worth checking out. In her own words, this is how writing has helped her heal:

Tell me about your first experience as a writer. How old were you? What did you write about? How did you fall in love with writing?

Writing has always been as an escape for me. Growing up, my mom had a personality disorder that caused her to be very angry much of the time. I spent a lot of time hiding in my room, writing my pain into journals. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Eventually, my dad gave me an old desktop PC (this would have been in the early 90s) and I remember clicking away on the keyboard late into the night and then printing my writing on the dot matrix printer. I put it all into 3-ring binders. It was all angsty teen writing. I didn’t have any ambitions for it, I just knew I felt a lot better when I got it out of my head and onto the page. I feel in love with writing in college. I worked for the school newspaper and seeing my writing published was really powerful. Then to hear from others how my writing affected them — I was hooked. When my daughter was born I started a blog and enjoyed learning and sharing with other new moms. That was my first introduction to writing as a powerful tool for joining people who might otherwise feel isolated.

What role did writing play when you were first diagnosed with cancer?

One of the first truths I knew after I was diagnosed was that writing was going to be my lifeline through it. I wrote my first blog post about it when I was still waiting for results from my biopsy. Immediately people commented with their own biopsy stories and some helped me know what to expect (and that my story sounded like it might lead to a cancer diagnosis). Writing connected me to a community of women who knew what I was going through almost immediately. That was really helpful as I was diagnosed because I had somewhere to ask questions and get reassurance.

How has your writing helped others deal with their struggle going through a cancer diagnosis?

The biggest compliment anyone can give me on my writing is, “You said exactly what I was thinking/feeling. I thought I was the only one.” I truly believe that when we tell our stories, they allow others to feel a bit braver too. Whether it inspires them to tell their own stories, or simply lets them hold their head higher for not being alone. That is my goal in helping others through their diagnosis and beyond, both in telling my own story, but in also helping them to tell theirs.

Tell me about the online writing retreat. How did it come about? How does it work? What can participants expect to get out of it? What’s your goal for both you and them?

Helping others tell their stories is a big passion of mine. We all have stories within us, but some people worry their stories are not worthy of sharing. Or that they aren’t a “real” writer. Or chemo brain makes accessing the past hard. Telling our stories is such a cathartic piece of a cancer process that I want to help everyone find the tools to tell theirs (including some tricks for accessing hidden memories). This writing retreat is about helping people get started with writing, or make time for writing. We’ll use writing prompts and timed writing “sprints.” This is a very safe, no-pressure way to begin because so long as your pen (or fingers) keep moving the whole timed session, there is no way to do it wrong. You’ll be amazed what can emerge in simply 10 or 15 minutes stretches. It’s about stream of consciousness and accessing what comes after you let it flow for a bit. Of course, people can do this solo at any time, but it is a real treat to do it in a guided group, and especially in a group of others who have faced some of the same trauma. This particular workshop, “Retreating Inward,” is a 4-week retreat. Individuals can pick the Thursday series or the Friday series. I tried to schedule it for times that would appeal to west coasters and east coasters. We’ll meet via Zoom for 2 hours each week. Some of the time will be spent in group discussion, some in wiring, and some in reading our writing (optional). I know some people may have kids that require tending to during our time together, and that’s totally ok.

What advice do you have for cancer patients who are aspiring writers?

My biggest advice is to make writing a habit. Like most things, writing gets easier (and better) the more you do it. So make time each day to write for 15 minutes. You have permission to write whatever needs to come out. Don’t pressure yourself to write something profound. Just write what you are feeling and follow the train of thought wherever it wants to go. Reading is also key to being a writer. Read stories. They need not be cancer stories. Simply reading will spark the writer within.

For more info or to register for the online writing retreat: wildfirecommunity.org/workshops (Thursday session begins Apr 2, and the Friday session begins Apr 3)

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson

Writer. Blogger. Advocate. Breast Cancer Conscript.