Boston-based writer Alice Hoffman was an established, best-selling author long before two kinds of breast cancer struck in July 1998.
But as a cancer survivor, she turned the adversity of the disease into an even more successful career — emerging from her fight for life more purposeful and more passionate.
In her latest book — Hoffman's novels are known widely and collectively as "fables of the everyday" — titled Skylight Confessions, Hoffman speaks about the challenges and rewards of facing and conquering cancer.
Recently, she appeared as the keynote speaker at the Wellness Community of Philadelphia's ninth annual "Celebration of Hope," held at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia, Penn's Landing, in conjunction with TWCP's goals of "cancer support, education and hope."
The daylong event, a free symposium for people with cancer and their loved ones, recognized National Cancer Survivors' Day with a special focus on "Healing and the Creative Arts."
Hoffman's theme was "Creating Stories Through Cancer" — how people affected with cancer can use writing as a way to achieve a sense of psychological stability, as they recover from the disease.
"I was a writer before cancer, but had never written about cancer before. When you're dealing with it personally, you notice it more and are more sensitive to it," said Hoffman.
"Ever since having it, it's come through in my writing. It's not what I write about all of the time or exclusively, but there is a thread of it definitely that runs through my writing. Cancer affects the depth of what you know about life in the world, so it's an issue in my books," explained Hoffman, who had surgery, and then chemotherapy and radiation for nearly a year, before being declared cancer-free.
Her message about being diagnosed with cancer and dealing with it is one of strength in numbers. "As a writer, I focus on the way art can help with the treatment process. And I tell people it's important to be in a support group, helpful to talk about it and support one another as much as possible, even though after I was first diagnosed, I was very uneasy about it and didn't want to tell others about it.
"Also, as a writer, I tell people it's a good idea to 'let yourself be free in some artistic way.' The benefits are similar to those of meditation."
Her purpose today, she continued, is to help people to acknowledge that going through cancer is indeed a shared experience.
"There's a very deep connection when you go through this, a realization that began with my own hospital stay, and that remains true now," she said, adding that "it's a very good thing to be [with] other cancer patients and survivors."
Her Table of Contents
In addition to relating to and encouraging others facing cancer, Hoffman used her creative, inventive abilities as a writer to connect with the audience — at one point reading in her grandmother's voice certain advice that Hoffman had written about. It was humorous and a poignant moment.
To date, Hoffman has written 19 novels for adults, and six for teens and kids. Among her best-loved titles are Here On Earth, a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Brontë's masterpiece Wuthering Heights, as well as Blackbird House, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, Turtle Moon and Illumination Night.
"My theory is that everyone, at one time or another, has been at the fringe of society in some way: an outcast in high school, a stranger in a foreign country, the best at something, the worst at something, the one who's different. Looking at it this way, being an outsider is the one thing we all have in common."
Another of the conference's speakers was Matthew Zachary, an award-winning pianist, composer and survivor who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1995 at the age of 21, six months shy of his college graduation.
Now 33, he was told that he most likely would never perform again, but he is — and did — at the conference.
As the founder and executive director of "I'm Too Young for This" (www.imtooyoungforthis.org), Zachary, who speaks 10 to 15 times a year throughout the country, is a vocal proponent of new ways to talk about cancer that impacts the lives of young people.
"I go to talk about my story," he began, about "how music got me through things, and especially about where research dollars should be going because research is needed to discover how to treat young people, who should [have access] to new protocols — ones that differ from those used to treat older people.
"It's a relatively new dialogue in the continuum of cancer," he continued. "The issue is about maintaining quality of life — not that older people don't deserve that, too; they do, of course. But young people with cancer must deal with it and its aftermath for a much longer period of time, so there must be better ways, a race to find ways for them to maintain their lifestyle and a better quality of life."
To learn more about the Wellness Community of Philadelphia, see: www. twcp.org.