Back in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.
In 2009, Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. In 2010 Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps because I didn't know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I'm not sure what possessed me - I was no writer, unless you count that 2nd place prize in a school competition. When I was eight. But a promise was a promise!
The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian's cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing.
I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.
My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian's response to receiving the letters. He once said:
'Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.'
Brian had plenty of friends and family but still felt isolated during his cancer treatment. I have come to learn that this is common when someone receives a cancer diagnosis; even the most well-meaning friends distance themselves, fearful of what to say and how to say it. As the cancer patient may now be absent from work or no longer be at the school gates, they become detached from their community, increasing that sense of social isolation.
A 2016 Southampton University report, written with Macmillan Cancer Support, concluded that cancer patients feeling socially isolated are three times more likely to suffer from depression. Lead researcher Professor Claire Foster said:
'People can feel isolated following their treatment and those with limited social support are at greater risk.'
A similar study in 2013 found that one in four people will lack support from friends and family during their treatment.
Something as simple as a card or letter makes you feel reconnected again,'Brian told me.
'Knowing that someone is thinking of you can change your whole outlook on the day.'
Fast forward to today - 100 letters later. Brian is four years clear of cancer, my letters continue, even if less frequently, and we are now best of friends. The letters encouraged me to leave the City, pursue an MA in Creative Writing, write a novel and have short stories published. Brian began a health and wellbeing blog aimed at men over 50 (www.beingbryan.com).
In 2016 we recorded our story for the BBC. The enthusiasm of the production staff inspired us to start a national campaign, encouraging people to do what we had done - write letters to friends suffering from cancer.
At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website www.frommetoyouletters.co.uk hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.
We have many requests from cancer patients who are keen to receive letters, so our campaign has been extended to encourage people to write a letter or card to someone they don't know. The communications range from postcards, notes that say something as simple as 'keep strong' to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life; great letter-writing skills are not required. The important thing is that connections are being made, days are being brightened and social isolation is being reduced.
In 2017 cancer seems to have wormed its way into all of our lives, either because we are suffering from it, have suffered or because we know someone who is. In this age of technology, who would have thought that the most simple way to make a difference is by writing a letter. But it truly is.
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