Meet Mary L.

Diagnosed at 39, Stage 1

When I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at age thirty-nine, people became needy and pushy, wanting me to help them feel better about my disease. I didn’t have the energy to answer so many questions. My solution? Email stories, medical stats and updates using my usual sarcasm and sass. I wrote things down so that I could document and process my emotions and experiences. I also realized chemo brain is real, and having a written record was necessary when I couldn’t remember vitals. From the comfort of my couch, I felt connected to the outside world, even if I missed the hustle bustle and normalcy of my pre-cancer life. With the support of writers such as Mary Roach, Daniel Handler, Robert Mailer Anderson and Vanessa Hua, I wrote my way through things like:

Nursing a crush for my surgeon

Digging poop out of my own body after days of constipation

Little girls telling me to take off my wig (that’d be a no!)

Searching for an end point. There isn’t an end point!

Singing “Dildos Are Forever” under anesthesia in the surgery stadium


I partnered with a friend, cartoonist Don Asmussen, creator of the San Francisco Chronicle feature "Bad Reporter." He was a cancer survivor at the time and had me giggling and spitting out my coffee as he made fun of me while sharing his own side effect-tales about losing his hair. We’d meet in a mall food court to talk about “The Wig Diaries” book project, and the result is an illustrated compilation of essays that tackles druggy wig shopping, going naked at the hot springs with a mangled body and only one nipple and the sorrow of hair loss and withered sexuality. Because I use humor, this is not Chicken Soup for the Cancer Soul.

As I said goodbye to body parts, I fretted over finances while also debating if eating too much BBQ or wearing cheap and sparkly drugstore make-up contributed to my cancer. Bouts of middle of the night insomnia made me feel especially afraid. There was also the aching grief and guilt of mourning patients who were Stage Four. I sincerely wanted to take away their pain and disease. Cancer forced me to learn to sit still with this kind of terrible helplessness and discomfort.


It was cathartic to lay it all out via my stories, while sharing helpful tips on what to say to someone with cancer. We don’t get enough practice using language about illness, death and grief, and it takes practice. I try to have compassion when folks screw up, and give me advice to drink more lemon water or ingest a lot of turmeric and brown rice. Yet many studies show that writing about thoughts and feelings in the face of unexpected life happenings such as cancer lowers anxiety and stress. Sign me up!


Coronavirus remains incredibly challenging for many. Yet writing things down has been a great way to keep moving forward. When I teach writing classes, students enjoy using writing prompts, which are short bits of text used to kickstart our creativity. Once coronavirus started shutting many aspects of “normal” life, I went into research mode. So many of my friends were now being forced to face their fears and experiences in the same fashion I did with cancer. I decided to create a book called “Write it Down: Coronavirus Writing Prompts,” using 186 short writing exercises. Writers of all stripes can choose their own adventure.

Some tips: At first, it may be tough and possibly surprising when certain thoughts and emotions surface. Write what you can. Keep the pen to the paper (or fingers on the keyboard) for five minutes. If you stumble, write a list of thoughts and ideas that you can come back to. There’s no need to fuss over spelling or word flow. Note any prompts we do not get to are for you to try out in your writing practice.

Writing: You might find it helpful to write as if you are in conversation with a close friend, favorite teacher, or other trusted person.

Describe how people move and talk, including posture, voice and/or mannerisms. What colors, textures, people and things are nearby? Colors and scents are especially evocative.

Dig into these sample prompts from the book:

What’s your secret weapon: Are you organized? Strong? Fierce?
Forward-thinking? Smart? Calm? Hardworking? Funny? Describe the ways
in which you’ve recently used this secret weapon.

Write an underwater scene with a cast of marine-life characters.
Make it a drama, romance, science fiction piece or something else.

When’s the last time you had a great, rolling belly laugh? What happened?

Write in detail about what you’ve learned about your roomies/family after being forced to spend way too much time together in close quarters. What are some things that annoy you? Could be loud chip-eating noises, 20-minute shower takers, or the not-so-mysterious way a certain someone leaves dirty dishes everywhere. If you live alone, examine the things you do that would annoy others, or create a cast that lives together in a large co-op, cramped apartment or other scenario.

Writing has helped me realize how fragile, weird, sad and exciting life can be. The routine has now become celebrated. When I was bald, bloated and exhausted from cancer, I used to look out the window and assume everyone was having a wonderful time doing amazing fun things. Now I have to use my brain to remember some of the fun and amazing things we all used to do because those activities are on hold and things feel especially upside down.



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