Monday, April 18, 2016

The Cocoon of Cancer: An invitation to Lovely Deeply - an interview with author Abbe Rolnick

One of the joys of being a writer is attending events with tons of other writers and booksellers. A few years ago, at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers annual event, Jerry and I enjoyed a breakfast when a woman introduced herself to me as Abbe Rolnick. Her husband finished up his breakfast behind her and she joined us for a few minutes. She’d been reading my Story Sparks in which I’d shared about Jerry’s many vertebra fractures. She said her husband Jim had been dealing with the same thing and we both figured it was severe osteoporosis but were going through the cancer inquiries. Small world we caregivers find ourselves in.

We exchanged emails and not long after we connected again. I could tell her that Jerry’s diagnosis was severe osteoporosis and he’d begun daily injections (following his three kyphoplasty surgeries). She told me of Jim’s new diagnosis: Multiple Myeloma and his complex evolution of the cancer. Her emails spoke of hope wrapped in the reality of the fragility of morality. When she sent me her book Cocoon of Cancer: An Invitation to Love Deeply. I saw the writing as a healing force for her and that Abbe’s words could bring insight and hope for others. Abbe joins me today and I’m delighted to encourage the reading of her book by anyone touched by cancer – or any debilitating disease.

Thanks for joining me today, Abbe. Can you tell us what you mean by Cocoon of Cancer? 
The moment Jim and I entered into the world of cancer, I felt that we had left behind our normal life. A cocoon encases and protects. Jim has two tattoos, one on each arm. One is f a butterfly and one is a frog. Both go through a metamorphosis. With cancer the change is internal, and there is no guarantee that you will emerge. The world outside matters less. Jim and I view life differently than before. We saw others with cancer and connected on an emotional level. Bonds fortified and nurtured us. Even now with Jim in remission, there is a separation from the old way of living. The cocoon still holds us. We may look the same, but inside we are more aware: we care more, give more.

The cocoon is a great metaphor for all the changes you’ve had. Why did you write this book? 
I didn’t mean to write anything. My essays and poems were part of how I began my days. I’d get up early, before Jim woke, to find my center, to connect all my emotions. I wrote so that I could be strong for Jim. Jim wrote to understand scientifically the cancer and the protocols.
Somehow our words made a difference to our friends and gave them an inside view of cancer. I found that the staff and doctors valued the essays. They don’t often get to hear the thoughts of the patient and caregiver. The essays made us all more human and provoked questions and answers that no one anticipated.

Your words add to the good research about writing and healing. Is this your first involvement with cancer?
Just before Jim was diagnosed, I had started writing my third novel in which the main character’s twin sister had died of bone cancer. Fiction became reality when Jim called me up to tell me his fractured back wasn’t because of osteoporosis and that he had an advanced stage Multiple Myeloma.

During his year of treatment, my mother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. In breaks between caring for Jim, I’d fly down to be with my mother. Ten days with Jim, five days with my mother. She passed after only three months. I was blessed to be able to hold her hand as she left this world.

Those are moments that stay with us always. Tell us a little more about your writing of this book. How long have you been at work on Cocoon of Cancer? How did the idea originate?
Months before Jim received his diagnosis, I noticed his decline. I wrote words of encouragement to keep us both going. When the actual diagnosis came, my writings became a way to share the journey with family, friends and even the staff at the cancer clinic. The by-product of Jim’s year treatment became, Cocoon of Cancer: An Invitation to Love Deeply.

A much more powerful by-product than pain! Did this book involve special research?
As a caregiver, I needed to know what to expect and independently gathered material from the internet, the cancer clinics, and magazines. Understanding Multiple Myeloma takes more than a simple definition. It isn’t a blood cancer, it isn’t a bone cancer. Plasma cells aren’t the same thing as the plasma in your blood. Months would go by and we would think we understood until determinations from doctors like “a mutation of your P53 gene puts you in the highest risk level,” set us off on more research. Jim and I went to the library at Fred Hutchinson Research Center, part of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, to find the history of bone marrow transplants. We learned the term M-spike and how the excretion of this protein devastated Jim’s spine. We researched each and every trial and medication offered. Our understanding helped form new questions. Because now, according to Dr. Fred Appelbaum, is the ripest time in the world of cancer research, Jim saw more hope than frustration in his diagnosis. Our questions mirrored those of actual researchers. Did we find answers? Some, and with others we can only hope for more technological advances. Since this is a book of inspiration for those with cancer, the more important research was a journey of understanding and patience.

Caregiving encompasses a universe of feelings. Your book offers a map through some of the challenges. Did the book entail any unusual writing habits or places?
I wrote in the wee hours of the morning, before Jim awoke, or while he rested most of the day. I wrote in the doctors’ offices, and sometimes right after procedures to keep my mind occupied and off the sadness or worry of “what if”.

We writers are always having to explore marketing when we decide to open ourselves up to others through a book. What do you see as competition for your book and how does your book differ? What are the special markets and promotional key point of your book?
Cocoon of Cancer, is a memoir on the journey of cancer, and it is also an inspirational book that encourages the caregiver, the newly diagnosed, staff members, and anyone who faces a debilitating illness. While this book deals with the specifics of multiple myeloma, many cancers follow a similar protocol. The crossover allows for a wider audience. Because it is written from the caregiver’s and the patient’s viewpoint, it is less technical and more personal. As a gift book, the prose and poetry give voice to the ups and downs of any illness, and celebrates the spirit that lives on.

I thought of it as an inspirational memoir with poetic overtones. I like that it “celebrates the spirit that lives on.” Would you say this is a book about death?
The idea of death becomes a reality with the diagnosis of cancer. Cocoon of Cancer is about intimacy. It is about living. Both Jim and I never changed what we enjoyed. We talked about death, but each day we made a choice. We chose to laugh more. During the procedures, the chemo, radiation, the stem cell transplants, we didn’t plan for the future. Those days, we learned. We participated in his healing. This may seem odd, but death became our friend. Jim told me the other day he now has to rethink death. I smiled. He knows life.

Yes, it is a book about intimacy. What would you say to those newly diagnosed with cancer?
I would offer my hand with warmth. I would let them know that the process, while difficult, is doable. That the bond begins with each of them. That they have entered into a select group of people who have value not yet tapped. Their journey will teach lessons unasked for. The will live a life fuller and freer, as well as more defined.

Now that Jim is in remission, what is next? 
We will ignore the statistics. We will continue to live our life. We will pay attention. We are still in the cocoon.

Thanks so much for sharing this intimate journey with your readers and with me today. We’ll continue to hold you in our hearts as you continue to live your lives, still in the cocoon. 

To get a taste of Abbe's writings, subscribe to Abbe's notes, short and quick writes of her morning thoughts as the world sleeps and before the sun rises.  They are enlightening!  Read a few here an subscribe

Abbe is establishing her social media platform and enjoys connecting online.  You can find her here:
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Goodreads (and right now one of her fiction titles is a giveaway through the end of the month: River of Angels
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