Creating a Cancer Legacy Project
How Having a Large Creative Goal Can Help You Heal
by Paulette Kouffman Sherman, PsyD
Paulette enjoys the beach with her two children.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I realized that my life might end up being shorter than I had originally thought. And it became the push I needed to accomplish my dream of leaving behind a legacy of books.
My intuition told me that I should write 22 books to inspire people to love more. I decided I wanted to self-publish in order to make it happen more quickly. And I did all this while working full time as a psychologist and life coach, undergoing chemo and radiation, and being a mom (of two kids under age six) and a committed wife.
Looking back, it seems kind of crazy. But having this passionate focus in my life – and knowing that my kids would have these books and that they might also help others – gave me joy and living energy.
As I finish book number 21 (out of 22) in my legacy project, I’ve begun reflecting on my experience. I’ve come to realize that having a large creative goal – or a legacy project – might help other cancer survivors too. Here are the top 15 benefits that I’ve discovered:
1. It gives you a focus that is bigger than your cancer. When you have cancer, it’s all you and others can think about. If you can create something meaningful that is “bigger” than your cancer, it will bring you positive energy to keep loving life.
2. Helping others makes you feel powerful and gives you a sense of purpose. I wrote a four-book series to help other cancer survivors get through the experience so they wouldn’t feel alone. Knowing that my experience could help someone else gave me a powerful sense of purpose.
3. The act of writing (or creating) itself is therapeutic. Research shows that cancer survivors benefit from writing about and reflecting on their experience.
If you can create something meaningful that is “bigger” than your cancer, it will bring you positive energy to keep loving life.
4. Having a long-term goal gives you hope that you’ll be around to complete it. If you’re compelled to see something through, it propels you into the future mentally and emotionally. It gives you hope that your body will follow.
5. It helps you see the meaning and lessons in suffering. Some spiritual seekers say Earth is a school where we learn through challenges. Cancer is undoubtedly a challenging experience. It is also a chance to work through karma, learn lessons about life and ourselves, and get clear on what we want our focus to be.
6. Art transforms us, others, and the experience. Art can shape our experience to make it lasting and valuable to others. It can even make pain beautiful if it speaks a truth or makes someone feel understood.
7. Leaving a legacy is a tangible way to still be here. We can leave our legacy creations behind indefinitely, and this is something that cannot easily be destroyed.
8. Passion is vitality. Doing what you love increases your life force.
Paulette displays a henna decoration on her bald head.
9. Telling your story is healing. Proponents of narrative therapy have shown that telling your story is healing. It helps you to master it, to gain a sense of agency, and to be the heroine (or hero) of your life story.
10. Having an audience or tribe helps you feel less alone. Having cancer can be an alienating experience. When you write a book, blog, create a YouTube video, or make art, you may attract an audience who supports and understands your experience and what you are trying to say. This can make you feel less alone.
11. It’s good to look back on your testament of your experience. Creating art helps you record your memories of your cancer experience so you can revisit the journey later, with a different perspective.
12. We most often create from our true self, or higher self. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott spoke about the true self being most alive in our acts of creation. Through creating, we can express our true selves and our true feelings. We can explore our experience without having to please others and without fear of repercussion in the outer world.
13. Accomplishing a significant goal reminds us that anything is possible. If you can do something like write 22 books during cancer treatment and recovery, you begin to feel that anything is possible and there’s a lot more you can – and will – do.
14. It reminds you that you are not a victim. As a person with cancer, many things are stripped from you. You experience a lot of losses: your hair, your toenails, your eyebrows, your energy. It’s easy to feel like a helpless victim instead of the powerful creator you are. Creating a legacy project reminds you of this distinction.
15. It helps you to heal and create wholeness. Writing, painting, and most other creative acts help you to take pieces of something and make them into a new whole. It is an opportunity to heal your mind, emotions, and spirit, even if your body is still fighting cancer.
Some words of caution:
Do this for you. Don’t do it for outside support or results. Others may find it obsessive or silly for you to spend your energy and time on such a project while you are undergoing cancer treatment. They may feel like you are indulging a hobby or setting yourself up for unrealistic expectations.
Don’t feel like you have to get a publisher or make money through your project. Or even have loved ones read or see it. This is all too much pressure.
Do it because you want to. The universe can respond to it – or not. We all need to master becoming an audience of one, needing no applause. Approve of yourself and what’s healing to you. Over time, let’s hope, you will find your tribe.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman is the author of The Cancer Path, My Quick Guide Through Breast Cancer, The Create Your Own Cancer Path Workbook, and 18 other books. Book #21, The Book of Sacred Baths: 52 Bathing Rituals to Revitalize Your Spirit will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in August. She is a breast cancer survivor, psychologist, life coach, wife, and mother. You can learn more about Paulette and her books at TheCancerPath.com, SacredBathing.com, and ParachuteJumpPublishing.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2016.