In 2016, Alison Hitchcock co-founded the letter writing campaign From Me To You with her friend Brian Greenley. From Me To You encourages people to write letters to friends, family members or strangers living with cancer, as a way of showing support, love and humour in difficult times. Spread the Word celebrates and encourages all forms of writing, and were moved by Brian and Alison’s story and campaign. Alison blogs about starting From Me To You, and shares how you can get involved:
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 8. But a promise was a promise!
The letters began and over the next 2 years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage 4, 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.
Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. Five years later I had completed a Creative Writing MA, had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory. Brian’s cancer and the letters had given me not just the gift of writing, but a whole new life.
At the end of 2016 Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. 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. Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can also write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life; someone wrote recently about the colour yellow at Easter, another about swimming in her local lido as the sun came up and another a poem about the joys of having a back-seat-driver for a wife!
These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back. Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. One of our writers, Melissa Fu, said of her experience, ‘One of the things that appeals to me about writing to someone I don’t know is that I feel like the letter and message goes to the receiver unconditionally. They don’t have to write back, they don’t have to say nice things if they don’t feel like it, they don’t have to worry about my feelings at all. There is something wonderful about an exchange of good will with no strings attached.’
While cancer continues to be an illness which scares not only the person suffering but also those around them, it is wonderful to know that something as simple as a letter can have such a profound effect, both on writer and recipient.
– Alison Hitchcock