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How Returning to College for an Advanced Degree Changed My Life

My breast cancer and a love of journaling led to my new life course

By Diana Raab

The day my mother gave me a journal to help me cope with my grandmother’s suicide undoubtedly changed my life forever. That seemingly benign gesture, when I was 10, laid the groundwork for my life as a writer. Following this continuum, and after a serious health crisis, I became inspired to make a decision which went against my character and one which I never thought I would do.

Students walking on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, Calif.
Credit: @jon.sim via Twenty20

I wound up returning to college as an adult and it changed my life. Here’s my story:

My cancer journey began at age 47 in mid-2001 when I was called back to the hospital for a repeat annual mammogram and eventually diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer called DCIS. At the time, my husband Simon, three kids and I were living in Orlando. My doctor suggested I obtain a second opinion from Dr. Mel Silverstein, a Los Angeles specialist.

My Options After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

He presented my options: either have radiation and chemotherapy or a mastectomy with reconstruction. After years as a nurse, I learned that the best way to make an important health decision when given a choice by your physician is to ask what he’d suggest for his own wife, if he has or had one. Because of his answer, I opted for a mastectomy and reconstruction.

“Right now,” he asked, “if you could do one thing which would make you happy, what would that be?”

While in California, and a few days following my surgery, I sat in my hospital bed surrounded by orchids sent from loved ones. The emotional pain of losing a breast had hit hard. When my surgeon said he would soon remove the corset-like bandage tightened around my chest, I feared seeing what lied beneath and the new condition of one of the breasts that had nursed my three now-teenaged children.

My Confession

Just days after my surgery, Simon reached out across the sterile bed sheets to take my hand. An engineer and a “fixer,” he had a difficult time watching me navigate through this intense physical and emotional pain. He looked deeply into my eyes, as he did years earlier on the day my father died.

“Right now,” he asked, “if you could do one thing which would make you happy, what would that be?”

Aside from transporting my children across the country to be with me, I confessed that I wanted to return to school for my master’s of fine arts (MFA) in writing. For years, this had been a dream and the surgery had suddenly slapped me in the face with my own mortality and my apparent race against time.

I wanted to make this dream to come true. “Well then, we’ll make it happen,” Simon said.

Returning to School for an MFA

It is not that his offer healed the deep psychological wounds of having lost a breast. But the idea of returning to school gave me something to look forward to.

I applied to a few programs and was ecstatic to be accepted into a charter class at Spalding University in Kentucky, lead by Sena Jeter Naslund. It would commence on Sept. 25,2001, about a month after my surgery.

Since that day in my childhood when my mother gave me my first journal, I had always found solace in the written word. Journaling became a passion which I turned to during other turbulent times — my adolescence, difficult pregnancies and cancer. To meet the requirements of my graduate work, I decided to gather the journal entries, reflections and poems I’d written during my post-operative recovery and shape them into a book.

The collection chronicled my breast cancer journey and the physical and mental anguish associated with it. My initial instinct was to prepare this document for my family, to help them understand my passion for writing and how strongly I felt about the healing power of journaling. I wanted to inspire them to write through their own turbulent times as well.

The Surprising Part About Publishing My First Book

It took me two years to pull all the information and journal entries into a book my mentor suggested I publish. The surprising part is that it took me eight years to find the courage to have it published. I simply wasn’t sure whether its personal nature was something I wanted to share with the world.

Revealing the intimate details of my story was akin to hanging my underwear on a clothesline outside my window. As a relatively private person, exposing myself seemed neither intuitive nor a good fit to my personality. In the end, I decided the process would be cathartic and most importantly, beneficial for others — particularly my two daughters who would one day have to face the torment of possibly being affected by cancer.

The book includes poems composed during my journey. Here’s a sample:

To My Daughters


You were the first I thought of

when diagnosed with what

strikes one in eight women.


It was too soon to leave you,

but I thought it a good sign

that none of us were born


under its pestilent zodiac.

I stared at the stars and wished

upon each one that you’d never


wake up as I did this morning

to one real breast and one fake one;

but that the memories you carry



will be only sweet ones, and then

I remembered you had your early traumas

of being born too soon, and losing


a beloved grandpa too young. I have

this urge to show you the scars

on the same breasts you both cuddled


as babies, but then I wonder why

you’d want to see my imperfections

and perhaps your destiny. I cave in


and show you anyway, hoping you learn

to eat well and visit your doctors, but then

I wonder if it really matters, as I remember


what your grandpa Umpie used to say,

“When your time’s up, it’s up.”

May he always watch over you.

My New Life

I’m so glad my husband inspired, and pushed, me to return to graduate school, which lead to the publishing of Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. I knew that my writing life would not stop there, though.

Daily journaling has continued to be an integral part of my well-being and a key to my survival. I became inspired to help others heal and transform through writing.

At 58, I again returned to school for my Ph.D. in psychology. The focus of my research was the healing and transformative powers of memoir writing. Like my MFA, my research transformed into a book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life.

Returning to school as an adult was one of the best decisions of my life, and quite possibly saved my life as well!

Diana Raab is a memoirist, poet, essayist, blogger and speaker, presenting workshops in healing and transformation. She has a Ph.D in psychology and is the author of 10 books, over 1,000 articles and poems. Her two memoirs are Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal and Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey. Her latest books are Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life and Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal. Read More
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