Avoiding the “Spinach Effect”: Not Letting Cancer Define Me

It’s an honor to host Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers: the Road Back to Kansas on her book tour this week.

Avoiding the “Spinach Effect”: Not Letting Cancer Define Me

I used to think that mentioning my breast cancer at a social gathering was a bit like having spinach on my teeth.  I might have brilliant things to say about a movie I’d seen, or a funny story to tell about my garden.  But I feared that people would see only that shred of dangling spinach.  They couldn’t hear beyond the “cancer, cancer, cancer” ringing in their ears.  They couldn’t see me.

So I decided I wouldn’t talk about it.   After finishing treatment in September of 2002 (surgery, chemo and radiation), I wanted to be more than my cancer.  I’m a writer, a reader, a thinker, a teacher, a friend, a gardener, a lover of walks.  I like sewing and art and good food and cats.  I care deeply about the state of our beautiful, blue planet, and the lives of my daughters and friends.  So when anyone asked about my health, as they would, I’d say, “Thanks for asking, but I prefer not to talk about it.” And then I’d switch the subject.

But then I started writing My Ruby Slippers.  Writing a memoir might seem a funny thing to do for someone dedicated to privacy.  But I thought I could pull it off: write my own story without including the cancer part.   You might guess this didn’t quite work.  Cancer had reshaped my view of the world.  It had changed me.  So how could I leave it out?  After writing 100 pages of a cancer-free first draft, I knew I had to start again.

Writing My Ruby Slippers let me tell the story of my going back to Kansas, which was the story I wanted to tell.  That journey had led me to reconnect with and heal a difficult childhood and reconcile myself to the place I’d grown up.  But writing also helped me include my cancer story as only one aspect of my life, not the defining one.  It allowed me to frame my cancer on my own terms instead of the fearful terms that others might use.  I began to see my writing as a way of helping others see beyond the spinach on my teeth.

As I write in one section of My Ruby Slippers, cancer “whatever else it might be, is also a Rorschach test, a screen on which other project their own fears of mortality….If they would be afraid, I must be.  If they would feel the chill of shortening days, I must wear a sweater.”  But that’s not the way I see this disease or the way it feels to me.  It’s not a dark cloud or a dangling sword; and it’s “not the house I live in…it’s simply the road I walk.”

My cancer metastasized in 2006, and is now my chronic companion.  I mention that with some trepidation, because saying the words still feels like spinach in my teeth.  But I tell you this because even though the cancer road will not end for me until, well, it ends for good, that’s still not where I dwell.  For along that road lies a host of wonders, relationships, pleasures, and the full complexity of me.


Tracy Seeley lives and writes in Oakland, California, with her husband, filmmaker Frederick Marx and three formerly feral cats.  An avid if amateurish organic gardener, she longs for a flock of backyard chickens.  In her free time, she’s an English Professor at the University of San Francisco.

http://tracyseeley.wordpress.com/  http://myrubyslippersthebook.wordpress.com/

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