Rexford author reflects on cancer journey and childhood

Some people write to remember; others to understand themselves.

For Susan Frances Morris, it’s a mix of both. In her upcoming memoir, “The Sensitive One,” due out August 24, Morris delves into her childhood traumas and her journey to breast cancer.

Morris started diaries when she was a teenager growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, although she had never dreamed of writing a book at the time.

“I’ve kept a journal all my life as a way to process my feelings and thoughts. When things were going to happen, it always seemed to just sit with me [for] a couple of days. To understand it, I’d just keep a journal,” Morris said.

However, after being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing treatment for it, journaling took on new meaning.

“Your life really changes after breast cancer; mine did anyway,” Morris said.

At the time of her diagnosis, she was 50 years old and was working as a registered nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Frustrated and desperate for answers, she researched the risk factors associated with breast cancer. She found that a growing body of research indicating long-term exposure to stress and traumatic childhood experiences increases the risk of breast cancer.

Earlier in her life, Morris had a lot of experience with both. When she was a young teenager, her father started drinking heavily and acting erratic, sometimes even abusive. Morris recalls feeling like her mother was emotionally absent and unable to talk about what was going on.

Meanwhile, she started taking care of her younger siblings.

“I became the mother figure for Mary and Margaret. I didn’t have to step up like I did, but my heart went to their sad eyes. I woke them up for school in the morning, read them bedtime stories, and tucked them in at night,” Morris wrote.

Aside from what happened to her father, another Morris brother (she is the second oldest of seven) struggled with schizophrenia and had destructive tendencies, and at one point a fire started in the family’s house.

While her parents eventually broke up and her sister received medical attention, Morris appeared to have been traumatized after high school. Her first husband, whom she calls Dave in her memoir, was both physically and verbally abusive. After several years of simply trying to survive the marriage, she fled and filed for a restraining order and custody of their two children.

In the following years she studied to become a nurse and found her passion mainly in women’s health. She married her husband Bruce in 1991. They had a child together, and for years her life was free from the traumas she endured as a child and young adult.

However, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, the memories and emotions of those experiences came back.

“The fear I had as a child only came out during my cancer treatments. I was rocking myself back and forth to sleep at night and I thought I was going crazy. . . I don’t think I’ve experienced that kind of fear since my early 20s,” Morris said.

After surgery, radiation, and other treatments, and eventually into remission, Morris found that writing about her experiences, both during her cancer journey and her childhood memories, helped her heal.

“I struggled through it. . . went into therapy, did all the hard work through it and I feel like all those scenes that are in my head are gone. They are on paper. As part of the writing process, I let them all rest,” Morris said.

At first she hoped to write essays about her experiences with cancer, perhaps to help someone who is currently going through it. But after attending a memoir-writing workshop, she knew she had a little more to say than would fit in a few essays.

“That workshop changed my life because it was small, maybe 30 people. . . and when they asked to write down scenes from your life that might be chapters, i couldn’t stop writing. All these scenes were in my head. I looked around, everyone had stopped and I was like ‘Wow, I’m still writing.’ And that surprised me, when I realized all those things were still in my head, pretty vivid,” Morris said.

Just a few years after returning to work in the medical field after her cancer treatments, she decided to leave to spend more time with her three children and four grandchildren.

“My daughter was about 16 at the time and I [wanted] to be home during those important times after school,” Morris said. “We developed this tea time that we had every day at 4 o’clock and we would catch up. Those are the things you remember.”

She also wanted to focus on writing what has become “The Sensitive One.”

“I was writing like every day. Almost to the point where that woke me up every morning because I had one more scene to finish. I felt like I was on a mission and I couldn’t put it down,” Morris said.

Writing and editing took about eight years. She broke up the story so that chapters of her cancer journey are interspersed with memories from the past, creating a connective tissue between the two.

“I think the reason I wanted it woven was: [it was] because of my breast cancer, all these things from my childhood came back to the surface,” Morris said.

Morris, published by She Writes Press, hopes “The Sensitive One” will make readers more aware of the impact a person’s childhood experiences and trauma can have on them later in life.

Perhaps more importantly, she is happy to share her story.

“I think we all have a voice and part of me feels like we’re all in this world together, right? And if we are not here to share experiences with others to help others through things or to share our stories and help others along their path, what are we for?” said Morris.

At its core, “The Sensitive One” is a story of resilience. As Morris writes, “Like a lotus flower, we all have the ability to rise from muddy waters, bloom out of darkness, and radiate out into the world.”

To mark the book’s release, Morris will be talking to New York Times bestselling author Judy Mandel on Tuesday, August 24 at 6:30 p.m., via a virtual event hosted by Northshire Bookstore. For tickets and more information, visit northshire.com. For more information about Morris and the book, visit susanfrancesmorris.com.

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