Truth, Certainty, and Dickinson

Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I wrestle with a lot of things. Two biggies are truth and certainty. My cancer diagnosis (x2) and the medical mishaps that followed violently severed every strand of trust that tethered me to my body and to the medical profession (both conventional and otherwise).

I am only beginning to acknowledge the depth and meaning of that loss. To feel deeply unmoored; to physically recoil from scientific evidence presented as “truth” or “fact” is made more difficult by the fact that I am a medical journalist.

Specifically, for the past 15 years I’ve reported on women’s health. I’ve written hundreds of articles on topics such as how to protect yourself from cancer; how to live strong after cancerhow bright light might cause breast cancer, and (my personal favorite) top cancer-fighting supplements.

So here’s my question: How can I continue to write about health in a way that meets my needs and my editors’ needs? How can I embody the voice of authority my editors demand? Expect? How can I continue to participate in and profit from the propagation of a “journalistic certainty” that is deeply disturbing to me?

If anyone has any answers, please let me know.

Until then, I will share an Emily Dickinson poem; if, for no other reason, than to know where I put it. I know nothing about poetry, but last month, when I stepped through the doorway of Dickinson’s home, a perky volunteer handed me the poem below. The poem was in easy-read type on a pale green sheet of paper.  The leaflet has floated around my desk every since, daring me to lose it, taunting me with the suggestion that it might contain the answer to my questions. Maybe it does.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

Emily Dickinson, 1872

2 Responses

  1. Bill Dameron says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Really enjoyed your writing and just wanted to let you know that I have found your blog. It was a pleasure meeting you at our writing class at Grub Street. Best of luck to you.


  2. Andrew says:


    Any intellectually-based response won’t address the spiritual sense of being unmoored. That said, I’d like to argue that using a writing voice that communicates authority doesn’t equate to the idea of 100% compliance/results. I believe you can write with authority on healthy lifestyles, supportive supplements, therapeutic perspectives–knowing that each thing you write about won’t work for 100% of readers–that’s why we have a publishing industry–so that multiple articles on multiple perspectives can reach a diverse readership. Additionally, I might argue that at times, it is not the specific suggestion (food, exercise, supplement, treatment) that is powerful, but the habit of searching you create in readers who continue to look for ways to improve their lives–that life pattern of continuing to strive instead of giving up. Again–it’s a habit and outlook of continuing and surviving and improving–not a 100% compliance of always being better. Some days will be worse.

    Some articles may not work for some readers. Some things you write won’t be working for you in the moment–or ever–but that doesn’t mean that it won’t help others.

    As to how to live unhinged, adrift, uncertain? I am not sure. Halloween and power outages are often scary to me because you can see the (imaginary) fabric that holds society together begin to unravel. I have trouble imagining what that feeling would be like on a more regular basis. That said, I guess I’d focus on what I enjoy–whether or not I am certain it will last or that it is right.

    Excuse the rambling–I just want to make it better for you.

    On another note–thank you so so so much for the sweet gift of foodie items. I sent Mary a facebook email thanks, but I never got your address in Boston, so I didn’t send a paper card. Know that I love it all–the salts, the lemons, seaweed–all fun.

    Thinking of you