Women on Top: Heather Choate On Cancer During Pregnancy and The Raw Power of Writing

Photo courtesy of Heather Choate.

Photo courtesy of Heather Choate.

In 2014, 29-year-old author Heather Choate was blissfully cuddle-puddled in between her husband and five adorable children, 10 weeks pregnant with her sixth, when her diagnosis of Stage 3 Breast Cancer shook the family. When confronted with the decision to either abort her unborn child or maintain her pregnancy at a much greater risk of losing her own life in the process, a hard pearl of truth bundled in Heather’s hands: she could not take the life of her child, regardless of what that meant for her own chances. She would have to fight to save them both. The moral complexity of others’ opinions, heavily overshadowed by her consciously decreased survival rate, launched her into a full-blown exploration of her faith and ability to trust in all that she could no longer control—bodily, mentally, and in every way in between. As a best-selling author of numerous YA science fiction works, notably dystopian novel Swab and fantasy adventure series Jonas Flash Chronicles, Heather also set out to utilize the emotional release and affirmation that writing has always afforded her, and logged her journey from its start right on through her remarkable remission and the birth of her miracle baby, Kiery Choate. Dazzled and in awe, ANNA had the chance to ask her a few questions on this emotional deluge and its translation into her newly released memoir, Fighting For Our Lives. You’ll forgive us if the waterfalls gushing from our tear ducts stained the electronic page as we took in all that she has to say in the wake of this.

This aching personal account has trekked from one headline to the next, translating its impact throughout each and every multi-media and written platform, yet has never before seen the full-blown breath of a memoir. After such a haunting story has been so illuminated within the public sphere by the reports and voices of others, do you feel any more or less exposed by the act of writing it out in your own words?

Writing is therapy, release and a gift of creativity and I have been drawn to it since I was a child. The day I was diagnosed with cancer, a quiet voice impressed upon me the desire to keep an accurate recording of what we went through. So, that is what I did. The memoir was written in real time, each entry the product of that day’s events, struggles, and triumphs. I wanted to leave something for my children, my unborn baby who may never get to meet me if I did not make it. I wanted them to know me for who I am, and so they could understand why I made the choices I did.

Now, I feel inspired to share the rawness of our journey to help others struggling with hardship in their own lives. If it helps even one person, then it’s worth it.

Yes, I feel very exposed sharing it so openly. I do not hide my true fears, faith and emotions. My weaknesses are exposed. Unlike, my fiction books, I cannot hide behind my characters here. It is very a vulnerable position to be in. But it is also incredibly freeing. I’ve never been so publicly genuine before. My purpose is to uplift, entertain, and inspire millions of people.

I think, as per the very nature of the human condition, each and every one of us desires to have our deepest, darkest corners exposed in the light. Yet we hold back from telling our rawest stories because we are afraid of the reactions of others and the truths about ourselves that will inevitably come bouncing back to us, unavoidable and loud. What were you most afraid of going into this process? And what has surprised you the most, in a good or bad way, about turning yourself inside out?

Great question. My greatest fear is that others may think I’m judging them if they make a different choice than I did. I’m not trying to preach to anyone, I’m simply sharing the importance of following what you think is right, whatever that may be. Once you know what is right for you, you need to stick with it, regardless of the obstacles or adversity.

What has surprised me the most about turning myself inside out is that I am a lot less afraid of sharing my beliefs than I thought. In our culture that is so afraid of “political correctness” it’s often taboo to talk about faith and religion. I couldn’t share our story without sharing my faith. It surprises me how open most people really are about reading and talking about it, even though they might not share the same beliefs.

With regards to your professional realm, as someone well-renowned for her works in young adult science fiction, how has the genre-bending act of shifting to memoir reshaped the way you’re forced to approach your own writing process?

Writing memoir has deepened my fictional writing. I can speak from a more honest and real place about struggle, sickness, weakness and overcoming adversity. Cancer doesn’t just affect the body. It is a full mind, body, spirit and emotional battle. It effects families and relationships. Everyone hears about the cancer, but they don’t understand everything else that goes along with it: the heartbreak as relationships rip apart from the strain of it, the loneliness of feeling like you’re some kind of freak among all these “normal people,” and the hilarity of having your children want to color your bald head with markers. All of this has made my fiction writing stronger and more meaningful.

When I approach the writing process, I still let myself get carried away in “another world” but I tap into that deep well of experience within, ensuring that my genuine voice gives life and depth to my characters.

That said, do you think this story, and its influence on who you have become, informs and/or drives the themes and messages behind your fiction writing to some extent? Or does your fiction act as something entirely external, a way to escape the emotional epicenter of this?

When I was diagnosed, I was heartbroken at the thought of not completing my Jonas Flash Chronicles series. I told this to my husband, Ben, half embarrassed to even mention it in the light of all we faced. I worked on it as much as I could that year, pouring my emotions and thoughts about the family into the series. One night, I couldn’t take it anymore. We still weren’t sure where I was with the cancer. So, I asked Ben to be sure it got published if I didn’t make it. Same with my memoir. I feel strongly that the messages are needed in this world and there is so much good they can do.

One day, when Kiery stretches and fills into a young woman carved from this history and fight, and she looks back at all these records reminding her of her infinitely complex roots, what, above all, do you want her to take away?

Okay, now you’re bringing tears to my eyes. What I want Kiery and every reader to know is the power of love. That is what our story is really about. I was willing to lay down my life if it meant giving life to her. There is no greater power in the universe. But I want Kiery to know that love isn’t just the motivation during a moment of monumental crisis, but a gift that needs to be given every day, rain or shine, in happiness and sadness, in good times and bad. Every day, from the day I conceived her to the day I do eventually leave this world, I want my children to know that their mother loved them.

FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHER CHOATE