How EMDR Helped Me Write About Remission

link to article. How EMDR Helped Me Write about remission

local author Brad BuchananBy Brad Buchanan,

Professor Emeritus

Sacramento State University

January 8, 2019



How EMDR Helped Me Write About Remission

You could say I’ve had some trauma in my life. I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in 2015 and had a stem-cell transplant in 2016 that nearly killed me twice.

The first near-death experience was planned: in order to clear my body of any residual cancer, they essentially wiped out my entire immune system with enough chemotherapy and radiation to cause death, unless a donor’s stem cells were infused and successfully engrafted in my body. The chemo and radiation, while uncomfortable at times, were not inherently painful or traumatic, but it was unnerving to know that my life was hanging out over a cliff’s edge, like Wile E. Coyote in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

But it was the second brush with death that really hurt. Once my new immune system was fully engrafted, it began to attack (for lack of a better word) the rest of my body, selectively but with devastating effect. My stomach became a constant volcano of seemingly endless diarrhea, my body was covered in a rash, my organs (in particular my liver) were distended, and my corneas were painfully damaged by the acute Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) that was running amok in my entire organism. Thanks to a life-saving therapy called photopheresis (which is a bit like dia­lysis for the blood), my GVHD was gradually degraded, and I was saved from immediate demise. I still get photopheresis today, as an outpatient, once a month.

As I was slowly recovering from the already rocky stem-cell transplant, still blind and shaky, I was diagnosed with another kind of blood cancer, B-cell lymphoma, that my oncologist, in an unusually despairing mood, predicted would kill me in roughly twelve months. This prediction proved overly pessimistic, and after some treatment with an antibody called Rituxan and a clinical trial in New York, I was declared cancer-free once more in 2017.

Both my transplant and the clinical trial’s treatment were billed as “cures,” but I often have a hard time using that word. For one thing, as I have seen in my own case, getting treatment for one type of cancer makes you more vulnerable to another kind of cancer, whether because of the risks entailed by radiation, or due to a suppressed immune system. So these days I choose to regard myself as having been “cured” of my T-cell and B-cell lymphomas, but as being “in remission” from cancer as a whole. If and when I am diagnosed with any kind of cancer once more, I will regard myself as having relapsed, and not having been suddenly struck by lightning three times.

As a full-time writer, I have been writing poems and essays about my illness and recovery for more than 4 years now. I first suspected something was wrong in the summer of 2014, and began writing paranoid poems that, unfortunately, turned out to be prophetic as well. In my book of poems, The Scars, Aligned (Finishing Line Press, 2019) I have traced the events and emotions related to my cancer and treatment in great detail.

One topic I never tackled, however, was remission. For one thing, I didn’t want to jinx it. Seriously. I am still a superstitious person where my health is concerned (bad things always seemed to happen in October, for some reason), and I worried that writing a poem about being in remission would be bad luck, an invitation for Cancer Part III to come and clobber me. Basically, I was still too traumatized by my misadventures as a stem-cell transplant patient, and wanted to let sleeping dogs lie.

Then I was introduced to Bilateral Stimulation, a technique associated with EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, a therapeutic method pioneered by Francine Shapiro. Both Bilateral Stimulation and EMDR are best used initially under the guidance of a therapist, and involve the rhythmically alternating stimulation of the right and left sides of the brain, activating the para-sympathetic nervous system (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the basic animal fight/flight/freeze instinctive responses). The para-sympathetic nervous system governs behavior like laughing, crying, and so on: the things I was much too tense and survival-oriented during my cancer treatments and stem-cell transplant to be able to do.

My first encounter with Bilateral Stimulation/EMDR started with handheld buzzers that vibrated mildly in an alternating pattern meant to activate both sides of my brain in rapid succession. This felt weird, to be sure, and I had no way to reproduce it at home, so my therapist handed me a headset and played some bilateral music for me in her office. This type of music, which moves seamlessly from one earphone to the other, is also sometimes known as EMDR, ASMR, binaural or bilateral music, and is readily available through iTunes as well as in CD form. My memories of what followed are a bit hazy, but I seem to recall that my therapist made sure I was “grounded” in my body by asking me to feel my feet on the floor, gave me some directed breathing exercises, and asked me questions related to my medical trauma. I closed my eyes and found myself picturing places of safety, so that even the thought of dying, while sad, was no longer frightening. By the end of the session I was so mellow I could barely get in my car and drive home.

I became addicted to bilateral music, in a good way, and found all kinds of tracks by composers such as David Grand (author of Brainspotting, a book I have also found fascinating and useful), Bryan Cumming, and Liborio Conti, that I could play on my phone anytime. Whenever I started to feel especially anxious or down, I could close my eyes and listen to the gentle sounds moving from ear to ear. The constant, smoothly shifting rhythms were just interesting enough for me to be able to relax and let all other thoughts and feelings drift away, far below my new headspace. With my therapist’s aid, I had found an astonishingly beneficial resource that enabled me to revisit traumatic moments in my medical ordeal, to better understand why they were so painful, and to shift them into less sensitive places by picturing things that I found calming (the ocean, for instance).

The soothing rhythms of this type of music also enabled me to write much more freely about some topics I had been avoiding, among them my own status as a person who, against steep odds is considered to have been “cured” of two types of blood cancer. As I was listening to bilateral music one day recently, I recalled a French word, “miraculé,” which means both a person who has been miraculously cured, and a state of amazement. Since there is no single obvious English equivalent for this evocative word, I made one up to use as the title of a new poem: 


once more amazed
by the state I’m in
there are smudges
on the doors of perception
but they have at least
been turned to glass
every morning
I bump my nose
quite painfully on them
tricked afresh into
stepping through my limits
I eventually find the one
I shattered when
I was out of my mind
and retrace my steps
from the day before
when I went exploring
the sobbing air
clings to my body
the deaths of so many
echo in chorus
crying for more
and better mourners
I crush my usual little tear
and finally tear myself away
with a respectful formality
such are the difficult rituals
of those who find
they are miracles

I had been worried that the strange title, the eerie metaphors, and slightly bizarre subject matter would be off-putting to some readers, but I decided to post it on social media to see what people thought. A fellow Sacramento poet, Kathleen Lynch, whose work I respect a great deal, told me that the poem was “truly helpful” to her, and I began to wonder what else I might write that would be helpful to my fellow cancer survivors.

The idea of writing as assistance to others, and not just as spouting off, probing the psyche for its weak spots and contradictions, etc. in the usual “literary” way, was liberating and motivating for me. Kathleen’s encouragement had been of a very literal sort: she gave me the courage to write about a topic I had long been avoiding: remission. I knew that this was a condition that many people could relate to, and I felt that if I could bring myself to write about it, some of my fellow cancer survivors might find it helpful.

Once more, bilateral music enabled me to write the poem to its end without breaking down emotionally, worrying about whether I was worthy of addressing such a highly-charged issue, or losing control of my language. Bilateral music even provided me with the poem’s first metaphor: the drumbeat that symbolizes both impending violence and approaching danger: 


the unremitting
drumbeat of
approaching bloodshed
has halted
all I can hear now
is its terrible
receding echo
like a yawn of grief
instead of
the more profound
promised sadness
of nightfall
rigidly enforced
I am too exhausted
by my journey
to see it fall short
of absolute peace
yet I am grateful for
this breathing space
I understand
my softened heartbeat
as its own
subtle momentum
a reassurance
shy of wisdom
but long past simple
I have paid my debt
to the distant country
from which I came
have made allowance
for my readmission
but linger in
my silenced exile
far too cunning
to miss this chance
to reflect upon
my pacific surroundings
before my arrest
and extradition
by the bondsman
of eventuality
currently in this
blessed abeyance

Suddenly able to play around with words I once feared to write down, I even had some fun with “remission,” first with the scary adjective “unremitting,” and then with the related idea of remittance (a sum of money sent to someone far away) and the word “readmission” (which contains “remission” inside of it). These quirky twists of language turn the poem towards its ambivalent ending: an awareness that remission is always only a temporary reprieve (something will kill us all in the end), but is nevertheless a blessing, and worth celebrating in its own right.

Somehow, this mixture of Bilateral Stimulation and encouragement has enabled me to confront my most menacing bugbears in their own lair, but instead of fighting or fleeing from them, I have managed to live with them for a few moments, listen to them, and learn what they had to teach me. I hope my little discoveries will be helpful to someone else who is struggling with some equally frightening or traumatic challenges. Most of us are, it seems to me, and all of us surely will someday.


local author Brad BuchananBrad Buchanan is Professor Emeritus of English at Sacramento State University. His poetry, fiction, and scholarly articles have appeared in nearly 200 journals, and he has also published two book-length collections of poetry: The Miracle Shirker (2005) and Swimming the Mirror: Poems for My Daughter (2008), as well as two academic books. His third book of poetry, The Scars, Aligned (A Cancer Narrative), is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in February 2015, and underwent a stem cell transplant in 2016. He is currently in remission.


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