The author of The Drowning Season, Here on Earth and many other beloved books set out to write down the lessons she didn’t want to forget after recovery.
Author Alice Hoffman, a 15-year cancer survivor, takes a look back at the life lessons learned during her illness and recovery in Survival Lessons.
When author Alice Hoffman learned at 45 that she had breast cancer, she was thrown for a loop. “When I found the lump, I was convinced I had imagined it. These things didn’t happen to me,” she writes in “Survival Lessons,” a new book that’s part essay, part personal memoir, part guide through recovery.
Previously the one who shepherded her loved ones through illness and tough times, Hoffman found that when she herself was ill, certain truths became clear to her that she didn’t want to forget later on. She set out to capture the lessons from her own life that became bright spots during her treatment – from her grandmother’s way of giving advice, to the example of her childhood hero Anne Frank, to the brownie recipe gifted to her by a dear friend.
Now a 15-year cancer survivor, Hoffman devotes significant time to fundraising for breast cancer causes. She spoke to the Daily News about “Survival Lessons.”
New York Daily News: How did you know you had to write this book?
Alice Hoffman: I have been running a breast cancer event for the past 15 years, and I gave a talk, and I felt like maybe I had more to say – a more personal talk than I usually gave. I started to realize after 15 years I felt like I could better address certain things. It took me a long while, but I felt like the time had come for me to address this part of my life. I kind of omitted it, in a way, publicly. But privately it really affected me.
How did you go about compiling all of the lessons? What was that thought process like?
I think I just thought about the things that I tried to do in the time that I was being treated. Because in a way, when you’re ill you kind of have to stop. You step out of your life and think about what’s really important to you and what you want to do, and as you get well, as we live our everyday lives, it’s very easy to forget these things. And it really is for me, I mean, I really get caught up in everyday living and these minute dramas that seem really big at the moment that they’re happening.
I think I wrote the book because I needed to take a step back and really think about what mattered to me. And part of what mattered was to take time for myself.
And what kinds of things did you discover you were missing out on?
To read whatever I wanted to, especially books I had read in my childhood – that was a really big deal for me. To think about who you really want to spend your time with is a big deal for a lot of people. Everybody has so many things that they have to do, whether it’s with work or with family. And the whole idea that you can choose your family – and by that I mean, you can choose your inner circle – life is short and you want to spend time with people who you love and who you enjoy.
Do you find that you live your life differently now?
I feel like I try to. And I feel like I still need help. That’s why I think I wrote the book. I need help in remembering that I can choose to forgive. That’s a really big one for me, as I think it is for most people. I need to be reminded, and I think that’s why I wrote it down.
Forgiveness is also a big theme in the book.
I think people do find it really difficult. I know I do. I kind of obsess about, you know, who did me wrong 50 years ago, and I think it’s very hard to let go of hurts and wounds. I remember when my sister-in-law had brain cancer and was dying, and we were kind of in denial about it and had to face it, one of the nurses at the hospital suggested that she write down the names of people she still felt badly about and burn the pieces of paper. And she did that, and then let them go. It was really moving to me that even then at that moment when her life was ending she still was able to forgive people.
Do you have a favorite lesson, of all the ones in the book?
They’re all meaningful to me in different ways, but I think for me because it’s so personal, the brownie recipe that was given to me by my very dear friend Maclin as a wedding present. Just the idea that you can heal with very small gifts and very small actions, and be connected to people in that way.
I can’t wait to try out that recipe. It sounds great.
It’s the best. It’s going to look terrible – it’s not going to look good because it kind of falls in on itself. But it is the best brownie recipe ever.
What made those moments – like the brownies, and the hat your cousin taught you to knit – stand out in your experience?
I think when you’re ill, especially, you realize who cares about you and who’s important to you, and who’s going to be there for you. These small gifts and the lessons I learned especially from the women around me – my cousin Lisa, who created the hat pattern, who was very much there for me when I was ill; my grandmother, who was always there for me – I feel like in a way for me it was about the people who cared for you. And sometimes those small gifts really are the most meaningful.
BY TRACY MILLER
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, October 4, 2013