Psychologist Jodie Fleming specialized in "psycho-oncology" counseling cancer patients before her own breast cancer diagnosis. Her new memoir, A Hole in My Genes, tells how Jodie went from doctor to patient and worked through grief and loss, surgeries, and infertility to cancer survival.
Jodie recently talked with Rose City Reader about her memoir, becoming a writer, and the Psychology of It:
How did you come to write A Hole in My Genes?
A Hole in My Genes came about incidentally really. In 2010, I received a breast cancer diagnosis which came exactly one month after my marriage had ended. I’ve always used writing as a coping strategy and so, began journaling in the form of letters to my Nana who had died four years earlier. She would’ve been one of my greatest supports and so, through the letters, I felt connected to her and comforted in a way. Once treatment ended and I stopped writing to her, I found I really missed the writing process. I stumbled across an online writing class, the Literary Kitchen with Ariel Gore, around the same time and used our weekly class assignments as a cathartic way in which to continue to process all of the changes that had just occurred in my life. Whilst it was therapeutic for me, I also started receiving feedback from my classmates that they too were benefiting in a variety of ways from my story. I think that as a part of coping with any of life’s traumatic events, we tend to go seeking meaning from them. The positive feedback allowed me to dream that perhaps there was a book in there somewhere that might be able to help at least one other person going through a trauma in their own lives and the idea for A Hole in My Genes was born!
You are a psychologist and, prior to your own cancer diagnosis, specialized in psycho-oncology. What is psycho-oncology and how does your professional background add to your memoir?
Psycho-oncology focuses on the psychological, emotional, social and ethical issues related to all aspects of cancer for not only patients, but also their families and carers. My work as a psycho-oncologist provided me with the privileged insight into my patients’ experiences. I’d also cared for my husband with testicular cancer eight years earlier and so felt very prepared for my own treatment, but that wasn’t to be the case initially.
It probably took me until mid-way through chemotherapy to realize that I probably had a set of skills that could alleviate some of the distress and discomfort I felt. I’m sometimes slow on the uptake! Luckily though, once I realized, I was able to rely on several helpful tools from my toolkit including accessing my social supports, mindful grounding techniques, and managing my catastrophic worries with some thinking tools. My prior knowledge and then lived experiences using those tools adds to my memoir which I’ve started describing as a hybrid book – half memoir, half educational instruction manual for the cognitive and behavioral strategies I engaged in my own treatment.
Your book is intensely personal – did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
This is a question I’m asked very often, closely followed by a comment about how brave I am, which I assume means that no one else on the planet would include some of the personal details I have! For me, it was a no-brainer to include everything that I did because those were the topics that everyone in my treatment team and surrounds avoided. I struggled with things like sexual dysfunction and menopause because no one had been brave enough to have those conversations with me and for years my quality of life suffered because of that.
I’m a massive believer that if we were all just a little more honest with our inner worlds then it would go a long way to stopping people from feeling isolated and alone with some really common, normal reactions to some abnormal life events. One of the main reasons I wrote this book was to hopefully give someone, somewhere the benefits of the knowledge I gained along the way so that they wouldn’t have to turn to Kathy Bates for sex education! (For those who have read the book, this will make a lot of sense). There was no way in good conscience that I couldn’t go all the way in telling my story, even though that has meant having to speak in public about my vagina way more than possibly imaginable!
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
This is a book for healthcare professionals. It is a book for the families and friends of loved ones going through cancer. And it may even be for patients. More than the cancer world though, this is a story of facing and overcoming adversity, about human resilience, hope, and imperfect life. Having said that, maybe there’s something in there for anyone going through a really hard time.
Can you recommend any other memoirs that deal with going through cancer with the kind of heart and honesty you put into yours?
Cancer memoirs are books that I read before having cancer. They aren’t books that I’ve chosen to read since. In fact, I did read Susan Duncan’s Salvation Creek after treatment not realizing she had breast cancer and had the strongest visceral reaction when I arrived at the page that described in detail one of her chemotherapy treatments. One book that I read afterward, gifted by a friend was Pretty is What Changes by Jessica Queller about her family’s quest navigating their way through having one of the breast cancer genetic mutations. Jessica herself had to decide about prophylactic surgeries before marriage and before having children and her writing style was incredibly engaging which we’d expect given she is a television writer. I truly loved her book as it gave me some insight into my family’s fears and decision making around the same issues.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
Mostly I’ve learnt how much I value and rely upon the writing process to cope in life. I still don’t see myself as a writer but having spent all of those years in and out of the Literary Kitchen, I feel as though I learnt to write, to express myself with an authentic voice and to paint a picture with words. The whole way along the biggest surprise to me has been the large amount of positive feedback I receive about my writing style, especially from the people closest to me who appear equally as surprised as me that I created this book that tells such an honest story that people seem to be gravitating towards. Reading my book on the other hand, which I’ve only done once from cover to cover, surprised me by highlighting to myself just how resilient I must be. That’s kind of nice.
What is The Psychology of It?
Well, once active treatment ended and I stopped writing the letters to my Nan, I really missed writing. So, I began writing the book. Once the book was finished, I really missed writing and so I had to find another place to motivate and inspire me to write. I’d really enjoyed writing about the therapeutic strategies in the memoir and I also had a greater urge to normalize common human experiences to enhance a sense of connection and similarity between us all because I see the complete opposite when people walk through my clinic door. My website, The Psychology of It, became the place that I could do that.
I specifically added five different components which supported five different writing styles. Analyse interprets the science into easy to understand concepts; The Coping Toolkit is full of easy to implement coping strategies; Conversations on the Couch are interviews with everyday people about life; Up Close & Personal are more personal reflections on global topics; and New Things sort of gave me a place to post articles that didn’t fit anywhere else. The Psychology of It Facebook page took on a life of its own though, with over 3,500 Villagers which provides a real sense of community. I share loads of things I find useful as well as original articles from time to time on the Facebook page and I have a very strong hunch that it’s due to Village that 550+ people filled our local theatre for the launch of A Hole in My Genes. The positive power of social media!
You have a great website and are also active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even YouTube. From an author’s perspective, how important are social media to engage with your readers?
Authors need a platform from which to launch their books and creating that platform begins to happen perhaps even before a book exists and is crucial for promoting and selling books. Social media engagement provides reach far greater than my website could as a standalone method for communication and I rely on it heavily for engaging with my Village. It’s instant. It’s an excellent source of information and it tells me exactly what my followers are into and what they’re looking for. I am still experimenting with all of it to be honest, but I’m learning as I go and am enjoying the process. In direct relation to A Hole in My Genes, social media has introduced me to so many amazing people and already has provided me with opportunities that never would’ve existed without it. This interview is one example of that. You would never have found me in my little pocket of Australia had social media not connected us.
I will soon have a new author website in addition to The Psychology of It website.
What is the most valuable advice you were given when writing your memoir?
Diana Kirk, who introduced us, actually was so instrumental in advising me to write with my own voice and to write for myself, as if no one else would ever read it. In the beginning, I got too caught up in what other people would think and it created too much self-doubt, not to mention painting a completely inauthentic version of myself. Once I had that all worked out, writing became easier.
Any tips or hints for authors considering writing a memoir?
Do it. Get started. It’s easier to edit something that exists than trying to find the perfect first sentence and staring at a blank page. Consider the other people in your story and how you might seek their permission to include them, or how you might protect them if need be. But really, it’s the Nike principle. Just do it.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Well, I’d love to say I have a solid idea for book number two but I don’t really. I’m busy working full time and promoting this book which I’m trying to mindfully enjoy as a process. In one of life’s great ironies, with all of the time that social media and book promotion takes, I’m simply not getting the chance to write! So in all honesty, what’s next for me is to join a local writer’s group that meet only monthly, but that’s better than nothing.
A HOLE IN MY GENES IS AVAILABLE ON LINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT!