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 North East & Cumbria: Monday October 11, 2004


Julia Darling
Poetry with the power of healing

In this special Inside Out film, we follow Julia Darling’s video diary revealing her passionate belief in the power of creative writing in the knowledge of her advanced breast cancer.

Julia Darling has a way with words.

And she crafts her words in poetry and writing to help others talk more freely about cancer.

Her writings tackle the taboos of cancer and illness head on.

Often irreverent, funny and moving, but they are never sentimental.

Julia is currently a Fellow in Literature and Health in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics in Newcastle where she is so often found running workshops for medical professionals.

Poetic medicine

Julia Darling
Life for Julia is built around words

"Operating Theatre", is a special stage for the creative writing sessions that she runs for the medical profession.

Established in 2001 by Dr Dominic Slowie, "Operating Theatre" is a creative amalgam of medical professionals, actors, writers and dramatists.

They share the understanding that creative writing really can help them deal with some of the very difficult situations they encounter in everyday medical practice.

Inside Out is a fly on the wall at the Buddle Arts Centre, in Wallsend, while Julia, working with a group of local GPs, talks of her personal experiences of dealing with breast cancer.

Julia believes that poetry really can make you feel better. She says, "Poetry is essential, not a frill or a nicety. It comes to all of us when we most need it.

"As soon as we are in any kind of crisis, or anguish, that is when we reach out for poetry, or find ourselves writing a poem for the first time.

"I have been exploring how creative writing, particularly poetry, can be used in a health context.

"I got involved with this kind of work through my own experience. I have advanced breast cancer, and poetry is what keeps me afloat.

"Without poems my journey through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the general ups and downs of illness, would have been unthinkable,"she says.

Breaking the taboo

Many people in a similar physical situation to Julia simply do not have the ability to express themselves in a creative way.

Julia at the workshop
The medical world is seeing the power of poetry

But Julia is a lucky one.

"In this country thousands are going through a similar experience.

"And yet most of us don’t have the words to deal with it,"she says.

"Through the summer I’ve kept a video diary and gone out to tell people what it’s like.

"I suppose, I want my legacy to be that they’ll be able to talk about cancer, death and stuff like that – because for most it’s still a taboo," insists Julia.

"I’m trying to help people find the right words. It can make such a difference."

You can watch Julia’s video diaries here

But what is it that makes writing so powerful a therapy for those dealing with a life changing diagnosis, a bereavement or other difficult challenges?

Julia sees it very clearly

First, Julia believes, poetry uses images to make us see things in a fresh way.

"In the case of the physical body, poetry shows us pictures and metaphors that we can use, rather like visualisations.

"In my case I chose to imagine my body as a house, and wrote many poems during my treatment about ‘living in the new extension’ or about my fears in my book of poems, 'Sudden Collapses in Public Places'.

"Poetry helped me to step out of the difficult present and to use my imagination to be somewhere else.

Dr Verrill, Bev and Julia
Realities come home at the regular visits to the doctor

"Once you have found a metaphor that works,"she explains, "you can explore and adjust it, creating new views, opening other doors, building scaffolding, and feeling more in control of your body."

Dear Doctor ...

There are times during Julia’s illness when the stark reality of what is within her is highlighted.

She visits her doctor, Dr Verrill, for up to date news of her condition.

He says, "I think you’ve got to bear in mind that you have got quite a lot of tumour on board – and that will make you feel quite grotty.

"Although it hasn’t got any worse, it hasn’t clearly gone away dramatically. There is still disease there and there are still metabolic implications of it,"he explains.

Dear Doctor
I am writing to complain about these words
you have given me, that I carry in my bag
lymphatic, nodal, progressive, metastatic...
Julia Darling

Julia writes of such medical words being used describing her illness...

Julia lives with her partner, Bev and her two daughters, Florrie and Scarlet. Life has not been easy for them either.

Bev is sometimes exhausted by it all – she says, "Sometimes I have to shout at her, that she hasn’t got the only right to death - any of us could die - at any point.

Family focus

"She starts to take the monopoly of death away from the rest of us. The thing she knows is that it is probably going to be sooner than any of us."

Florrie knows of the agonies too, "I feel very angry with cancer a lot of the time. It just robs people of their mothers.

Florrie is comforted knowing she will always have the poetry

"It makes my cry a lot.

"Two of my best friends have lost their mothers - there is almost this pressure that mum is going to be next."

And Scarlet’s perception on life has been brought into sharp focus, "I think it’s made me more open minded - I realise how precious life is. I’m more aware of things - I think it makes me wiser - I’d hate to be someone with no problems!"

Julia uses all the structures of poetry for the connection she has with the medical world.

"When I work with doctors and patients using poetry, we often use simple poetic forms, such as sonnets or haikus, to write about our experiences.

"I love the atmosphere in a room when a group of people are working on the making of a poem. It has a lovely honey calmness about it. Writers can take their scribblings, diaries and notes and develop these into a poetic shape."

The family at the dining table
Each family moment is precious

Dominic Slowie is moved by its power too.

"Doctors are always looking at ways of improving the understanding of their patients. I think that this creative process allows you to safely step in somebody’s shoes and experience their world.

"We can connect to other peoples suffering," he feels.

But Julie, above all else is a pragmatist.

From her poem "Days of Terrible Tiredness" …

I think sometimes I might just sleep
wrapped in fur, close my brown eyes,
be washed away, be satisfied,
with this and what it always was.

Julia Darling

She understands the limitations of her body and the extents of her illness.

She says, "Words really matter to me, even in death."

But the strengths that come from Julia’s pen will, as her daughter Florrie says, be special, "Don’t worry mum, when you’ve gone I will still have your words, especially your poetry. It makes me feel very close to her."

It’s the strength of Julia’s writing that will always retain closeness to the reader.

See also ...

Health - Living with Cancer

On the rest of the web
Julia Darling
Operating Theatre
Breakthrough Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer Care
Cancer Support UK
Cancer Research UK

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Belinda Walker
Hello Julia you kindly replied to an email I sent you after I had read one of your articles in a newspaper. I bought your last book of poems and love them. I have given another copy to a friend who also has breast cancer and I'm giving another copy to one of my doctors. I think I'm still in shock from my own diagnosis (also advanced) but it was good to see the BBC film and your poems have helped me a great deal. Best Wishes to you and your family.

Bob Stevenson
I like the poems very much. I tried to e-mail Julia but couldn't get through. I would like to be in touch as I would like to help a friend of mine who also has breast cancer - which has spread. Could you provide an alternative address to be in touch please?

Alison Parsons
Having recently lost my wonderful dad to cancer, I recognised so many of the feelings told in these poems. I have found them a great comfort, in a strange sort of way, as I did the programme. Thank you so so much. Love to you and your family.

Louise Bosman
After watching our programme tonight I would like to ask you this question. Do you think it is appropriate to mimic how people with neurological speech problems sound? We know what we sound like thanks, people turn and stare when we talk, yes we do sound spastic, we don't need to have you doing it on national TV thanks.Oh, and by the way, Yes! It is "terrifying".

Janet Harrington
Dear Julia, My name is Jan Harrington and although i'm not a writer, I have established a website in which i offer sufferers and loved one the opportunity to share experiences with others by writing their own narratives. I was diagnosed almost 4 years ago with a rare brain condition. In 2001 I had successful surgery at the Newcastle General to remove the malformation in my brain. While recovering I began to write about my experiences and decided to share my experience — I launched a website offering others with the condition the opportunity to put their feelings down on paper. The website has received a phenomenal response with many visitors choosing to add their own experiences. I see the written word as therapy for the soul and in a way allowing us to offer ourselves closure on an experience or time on our life. I would be honoured if you would spare a few moments of your time to view our experiences. The address is: I hope you enjoy our narratives. The programme this evening enabled me to see clearly why many of our writers feel a sense of relief after offloading their feelings. Not all experiences are as happy as my own — some users of the website will live with a time bomb ticking until it chooses to explode and yet we all have found comfort in posting our stories. Take care and God bless

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