Writing Ourselves Home

Writing Ourselves Home While Living with Cancer: Kirsten Andersen

The Callanish Society is a small, grassroots non-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Dedicated to improving the emotional and spiritual health of its community, Callanish assists those with an experience of cancer in their lives to explore illness and/or death openly and consciously.

Week-long retreats and ongoing support programs are offered by a team of health care professionals and volunteers who believe that communities can develop resilience in the face of illness and healing, loss and death, by coming together in a process of authentic dialogue and in an in-depth exploration of what it means to heal emotionally and spiritually while living with, or dying from, cancer.

The desire for this depth of exploration naturally lends itself to the use of arts as a means of healing. Through the years, Callanish community members have experienced and witnessed extraordinary transformation through the use of art, music and sound, meditation and circles of support. Writing, therefore, seemed a natural addition to further engage in authentic dialogue about what it means to heal, and, in the spring of 2008, Callanish Writes was born.

Coming together to write as a group for the first time, we “landed” in our new space by considering our origins – who we are, who we were. Utilizing the Amherst Writers and Artists’ (AWA) method pioneered by author Pat Schneider, reading out loud for the first time, writing poetry and responding to each other’s work were firsts for many of us and opened a vast door of possibility.

As the weeks passed, we began to examine the terrain of cancer, from diagnosis to the scars that adorn the body and the mind. We wrote about “gooey emotions,” and gave “cause to pause” on the matters of life, with and without cancer, with and without answers.

Through language, we traveled from the icy peaks of Patagonia to the streets of New York City with a “llama in a limo.” We visited “forests of faith” and mourned “days of hope renewed, but ended.”

Each week we found beautiful and pithy words to “throw off the tongue” and “the grace to move on.” Together, we continued to “let the light (and the bedbugs) bite,” because we had the reassurance that whatever came out on paper could be held by the group – the same support that is such an integral part of the Callanish culture.

Callanish writer, Peter S. reflects on his experience as a participant: When I immersed myself in the inaugural Callanish Writes group, my lymphoma had been stable for a year. Psychologically torn between euphoria for having beat the “Big C” to waiting for the hammer to come down in a possible relapse, I participated in the workshops with an open mind and spirit.

I rediscovered my inner voice, which had eluded me since diagnosis. I was astonished at how concealed words flowed onto the page, and the powerful reaction they evoked. I was humbled sharing the sacred inner thoughts of my fellow writers as they too struggled to articulate their own struggles and perspectives on this journey with cancer. As the weeks passed, writing “in community” was a powerful tool for healing. [I experienced] fear, trust, forgiveness, acceptance, and, most important…love.

Fellow Callanish writer, Eva M., adds: For many of us that have been diagnosed with cancer it is difficult to be truly honest with loved ones about the fear, the trauma, the frustrations that we encounter. For their sake we show our positive outlook. The workshop provided a context which permitted, in fact, encouraged, all expressions that might be locked inside, including the humourous. The group dynamic also allowed each of us to feel less isolated as we discovered similar responses from our fellow writers. Herein evolved the quality of community, sharing the struggles and the laughter.

For Callanish writer Robin F., utilizing the written word as a means of personal exploration was “liberating”: After 60-plus years, I learned to befriend my critics, enough to politely excuse myself from their presence.

Robin further reflects:

A Discovery: Words flowed
Surprising: I made a group of people laugh
Shocking: I spoke in a group of people
More shocking: I spoke my own truth, my own words
Even more astonishing: They listened and responded
Profound: As cancer became one mere aspect of my life, writing became a warm, wondrous expression for me. A welcome tool.
Writing is no longer something I have to do as a chore with feelings of inadequacy.

Powerful: As a result of participating in the workshop I also am aware that to my behavior in all groups has shifted: I am present! With friends, peers, family, experts, colleagues and classmates. I no longer sit in tension, distracted by the fears and critics that used to surround me. Truly transformational.

Eight sessions and thousands of words later, the group published its first collection of writing, Callanish Writes, Volume I, in April of 2008. The brave work of this inaugural group has paved the way for others in the community to explore the written word as a means of transformation and healing during and after illness. As the final entry of the collection, writer Leah C’s poem, “I am,” beautifully articulates the return to wholeness we each seek as part of this ongoing exploration. May such dialogue with ourselves and our community always be part of the journey.

I am

I am
I sense it
the soul cells
taste of wine
a curved neck
and stilltime
the cathedral
a silent mantra
to Mary
or White Tara
on the radiation table
Watching water
and making
its music
beside a tree

Somewhere inside
I am
the inner Sanctum
the Temple
gives me silver wings
and says


Becoming a part of the Callanish community in May 2006, Kirsten’s ongoing journey with lymphoma has led her to further explore the transformative power of writing during illness. She holds degrees in literature and journalism and her work has appeared across Canada, in print, radio and television. She is also certified by Amherst Writers & Artists as a writing workshop facilitator.

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