Can We Edit our Cancer Stories? How?


There’s a quote from Susan Statham that gave me pause when I first read it: “Your life is a story; write well, edit often.”

How do you do that? How does the editing process work?

Back when my husband’s cancer took a sharp left turn, chemo was prescribed – not as a cure, but as palliative care.

It was Thanksgiving and we were with extended family. Gary asked our niece Janelle if she’d shave his head. Because he wasn’t going to let chemo dictate when he would lose his hair.

But. You put an electric shaver in the hands of a niece who is a crazy passionate Oregon Ducks fan, well then …

First you get your leopard-patterned cape.

Then you get your standard mohawk.

From there, it was all downhill as Janelle shaved an “O” on the back of Gary’s head in anticipation of the Oregon/Oregon State football game later that day.

And of course photos were taken and posted to Facebook.

“What’s going on out there?!” our daughter Summer texted from the east coast.

Looking back, this was Gary editing the “chemo chapter” by throwing in a bit of fun for those of us whose hearts were beginning to crack open more deeply.

There’s a long season in Gary’s and my story that ended up being a bleak trek through job loss, financial reversals, and caregiving for my live-in mom with Alzheimer’s and my husband with terminal cancer.

But I edited each of the chapters.

Instead of those years signifying irretrievable loss, they symbolize a time of stretching and growth, of falling more deeply into love with each other, more deeply into our faith.

Those years represent learning to find meaning and purpose during the hard and holy moments. They represent hiking to the tops of more mountains, and taking more road trips, and having more fun. Which means, the ten cancer years were the best years of our marriage. Imagine.

So, how do we go about editing our stories?

1. Take inventory. 

We begin the process by taking account of all that has transpired. In addition to a cancer diagnosis, what else threw us for a loop? What is it that overwhelms us at the moment?

2. Reflect on events through different lenses.

After the initial self-pity and frustration and hopelessness, Gary and I made an intentional choice to view our adversity through God’s lenses as we looked for the good alongside the heart-breaking. (Easier said than done, I know.)

As an example, Gary was laid off when the company he worked for was bought out. We moved to a larger community with more job opportunities, which means I had to give up work at a non-profit to find a job that paid better and had health care coverage. Gary was diagnosed with cancer, and I eventually ended up on staff at the St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, OR, with a stellar group of co-workers and an active survivor and caregiver community.

We hiked together. And camped together. And shared meals together. These were the same people who surrounded us with so much love and support as Gary was slipping away from me. If Gary hadn’t lost his job, I wouldn’t have been employed at the cancer center, and we wouldn’t have had the same relationships with this community, which ended up being a priceless gift.

Henri Nouwen penned these thought-provoking words: “Our pains and joys, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the ways we remember these events.”

3. Journal our thoughts. 

We edit by writing out our reasoned thoughts. Dr. Timothy Wilson—a psychology professor and lead author of a Duke study on the benefits of capturing our thoughts in writing—said this: “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.”

Reconstrue. Rethink. Reinterpret.

Even for people who don’t enjoy writing, there is good therapy in putting our disappointments and shattered dreams into words. And then beginning to capture our thoughts around what sort of new purpose could come from our adversity.

I’m pretty sure I saved my husband thousands of dollars in psychotherapy costs through the years simply by keeping a journal.

What if?

What if cancer invaded our stories and the chapters didn’t turn out exactly as we planned? But what if we could edit and reframe those chapters to see them from a broader perspective?

I didn’t have a choice when cancer invaded my husband’s body, our lives, our finances. But I have a choice in how I react and live forward with this irreversible thing.

I choose to notice everyday graces, to acknowledge the people in my life as gifts, to love, to speak courage and hope, to count blessings and lean in close to God, to embrace all God allows – the broken along with the beautiful.

Now that I’m in a blissful, contented, brimming widowhood routine, I wouldn’t wonder if it’s time for some unsettling. Because getting pushed out of our comfortable places provides the opportunity to start the next chapter of our lives.

I’m ready. Let’s do this!


Marlys was the caregiver of her husband Gary who lived ten years after being diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer. After his diagnosis, together they founded a non-profit called Cancer Adventures, sharing their story with groups across the country. After Gary’s death in 2014, Marlys has continued to share the underlying theme of her and her husband’s story: How challenges are a part of life but you have choices. She has a passion for helping people navigate life’s challenges, having negotiated a few herself. 

6 thoughts on “Can We Edit our Cancer Stories? How?

  1. Marlys, I loved this part…. “I didn’t have a choice when cancer invaded my husband’s body, our lives, our finances. But I have a choice in how I react and live forward with this irreversible thing.

    I choose to notice everyday graces, to acknowledge the people in my life as gifts, to love, to speak courage and hope, to count blessings and lean in close to God, to embrace all God allows – the broken along with the beautiful.”

    It hit home more than you know. I found this site tonight while researching. I am in need of advice/help, if you choose to reach out, I would like to send my email to you.

  2. Great article with deep meaning. For me, the topic of cancer is very close and relevant. My close friend has cancer. I worry about him and try to support and encourage him as much as I can. It is difficult for everyone – for him, me, his family and loved ones. I have never heard Susan Statham’s words “Your life is a story; write well, edit often”, but they definitely touched my soul. And your ways to “edit the story” are just wonderful and I’m sure they are effective. I will definitely try to apply them in my life.

  3. I really hope editing will be helpful for you. one of my friends was also suffering from cancer disease and had taken many allopathic treatments but still was not getting well by these treatments, then someone suggested him of taking Ayurvedic treatment of Jain’s cow urine therapy and after taking this, he was feeling better than before, so thanks to Ayurveda

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