PositiveCan good things emerge—unexpectedly—from the cancer journey? Reeling from the death of her mother, Sally Collings saw nothing positive whatsoever about the disease.

But then she read that two out of three cancer survivors and their families consider that something good has come of their experience, and she decided to find out more. She sought out people who had encountered cancer—either personally or through someone close—and delved into what they thought.

Positive brings together a collection of voices: cancer survivors, carers, partners, parents, siblings. Together, their stories map out the terrain of the upside of cancer: the opportunity to draw together (as friends, as a couple, as a family); the torrent of support, love, and prayers that are unleashed, the impetus to go deeper and embrace the strength, fears, and purpose that lie within each of us.

Above is the inspiring (and surprising) synopsis of author and editor Sally Collings‘ book, Positive. Collings told me a little more about how she came to write the book and how she’s using it to continue tackling cancer …

Cancer is something that too many of us have had first-hand experience of, you included. But few of us have turned it into such a positive experience. What sort of response have you received to Positive?

When I heard about the ‘two out of three’ statistic of people finding something good out of cancer, I was pretty skeptical. That wasn’t my experience, and I truly doubted that it could be that common. But I went looking for the stories anyway. I expected a lot of people would be hostile to the concept: if you’ve just lost someone to cancer, you don’t want Pollyanna knocking on your door asking you to feel happy. But I was blown away by how many people offered to tell their stories.

When you’re writing a book it can be an isolating experience, even when it involves a lot of interviews like Positive did. Somewhere along the line you can feel that you’re banging your drum in an empty room. So once the book came out, I was amazed—and humbled, really—by the number of people who thanked me for writing it. Many people have come up to me at events or written to me to say how significant it was for them to read other stories about people going through one of the hardest experiences life dishes out, and coming through the other side with something good to say about it.

How did writing the book help you?

All the way through writing it, I kept thinking, it’s great that so many people have this positive experience, but that’s not how it was for me. I just didn’t see myself as having a positive story to tell. But my editor insisted that I needed to write a foreword for the book explaining my story and why I had written Positive. It was only through writing my story down—about how I had lost my mother to cancer a few years before—that I realised that perhaps my ‘positive’ was actually that book. I came to see that often the positive is about what you can give to other people, and what I have to give is this book, which I hope will comfort people through knowing they are not alone, and give them a boost to get them through the darker days that inevitably come in any experience of cancer.

Come to mention it, you’ve written some books about extraordinarily sad issues (I’m thinking both about the circumstances leading up to Positive and of Sophie Delezio’s story), yet you’ve managed to turn them into uplifting experiences. What’s drawn you to such stories (and the telling of such stories)? And are you a glass half full person?

I know! I actually think I’m quite a funny person, yet somehow I’m drawn to writing about dark experiences … The thing for me is that I want to know what it is that brings people through tragedy and heartache. I see myself as writing about life and resilience, rather than about illness and injury. I’m also passionate about the significance of sharing stories and how it draws us together as a community. Deep down I do believe in finding something innately good in every circumstance, so I suppose that makes me a ‘glass half full’ kind of person. I try very hard not to be simplistic or sentimental about it, though. Often the good to be found is not simple, or straightforward, or immediate.

I’m also guessing you’ve heard a million stories since publishing Positive. Any chance we’ll see a second book on the subject?

I have heard more remarkable stories, but I’m not sure if I’ll go on to do a second book like Positive. At the moment I’m fascinated by the other forms that stories can take, and I’m looking at ideas such as setting up an online space where people can contribute their own stories.

You’re extending Positive’s impact by taking on the Ride to Conquer Cancer (RTCC). Can you tell me what gave you the idea to do so? And the experience you’ve had so far?

You could call it my midlife crisis: late last year I decided that I wanted to do something significant and physically challenging, but I didn’t want it to be just an adventure holiday. Then I saw a brochure about the RTCC and I figured it was perfect: a physical challenge, raising money for cancer research, involving cycling. The RTCC is a 200km cycle ride over two days, and all the funds from the Brisbane ride go to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. It’s a big commitment: I’ve mostly been a commuting cyclist, so I started training for longer distances at the beginning of the year. The fundraising is a big deal too: participants commit to raising at least $2500. That’s why I decided to contribute all of the proceeds from copies of Positive sold through my website to my RTCC fundraising.

I’m speaking as a writer and editor who spends enormous amounts of time at her desk … How tricky has it been to fit in the training? Have you enjoyed it?

I think I’m doing enough training … I’ve got two young children as well as working full time and the rest of it, so I try to find time-efficient ways of training. Lots of interval training, and very early mornings! But I feel fitter than I’ve been in years, so that’s a bonus.

Positive asks the question: Can good things emerge—unexpectedly—from the cancer journey? What have been some of the unexpectedly good things from both the book-writing and the RTCC journeys?

Meeting the most remarkable people. I’ve connected with individuals and groups to do my cycling training with, and some have been incredibly generous with their expertise and knowledge, and have helped me enormously as a novice cyclist. Equally through writing Positive, I’ve met some awe-inspiring people. Some of their stories are just so beautiful, bursting with love and courage and determination and honesty. I didn’t expect positives out of cancer when I started out, and I certainly didn’t expect beauty.

What do readers need to know about RTCC and your upcoming talk at Metropolitan Funerals? How can they help/get involved/donate?

I would love people to support me in my RTCC fundraising—it all goes to cancer research, and much as I’ve discovered that there can be positives out of cancer, I’d really rather people didn’t have to go through such a terrible experience. So that’s what the Ride is all about for me. There are three ways people can get involved:

  1. To donate, you can go to my fundraising page http://bit.ly/wwzJ85.
  2. You can buy copies of Positive through my website www.sallycollings.com and all of the proceeds go into my RTCC efforts.
  3. And if you are in Brisbane on Wednesday 6 June, please come along to my fundraising evening. You can find all the details at www.sallycollings.eventbrite.com.au.