Finding a silver lining
Hollye Harrington Jacob's new book offers insight into breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery
By Anastasia Busiek
When Hollye Harrington Jacobs (BSN ’97, MSW ’06) was diagnosed with breast cancer, she wanted to communicate with family and friends about her experiences in a way that wouldn’t take too much of a toll during a stressful time. And so she started a blog, TheSilverPen.com. The Silver Pen grew from a personal communique into an internationally read blog and a valuable resource for others experiencing breast cancer and treatment.
During treatment, “I didn’t have the physical or emotional capacity to talk on the phone or meet in person, so I wrote,” Jacobs recalls. “With the blog, I could write at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. I was able to communicate in the way that was best for me.”
Jacobs wanted The Silver Pen to be about more than cancer. She wanted it to be about the things and people she loves as well as her disease.
“I didn’t want to write or read about cancer every day. I wanted to share what I loved in life: travel, books, fashion, child development, and cooking,” she says.
Since cancer was now a big part of Jacobs’ life, she came to find that writing about it was not only therapeutic for herself, but that it could help others navigate the many challenges—physical, emotional, and administrative—that can accompany breast cancer.
Jacobs offers insight not just as someone who has been treated for cancer, but as a pediatric and adult palliative care nurse and social worker with graduate degrees in bioethics and child development.
“When it came to cancer, I wrote about my personal experiences through the lens of my professional ones,” Jacobs says. “My clinical background gave me a great deal of insight. Right after I was diagnosed, I put on my professional hat and thought, ‘What would I say to a patient or a friend?’ It allowed me to navigate the system in a more productive way.”
Jacobs started as a nurse at Loyola, working in the adult intensive care unit before segueing into hospice care. She also completed a fellowship in bioethics at of the University of Chicago. She then earned Master’s of social work and ran a national program training nurses in pediatric palliative and hospice care.
Jacobs’ clinical background shaped her experience as a patient. And the experience was harrowing.
“Just about everything that could go wrong, did,” she says. There were complications with surgery and with her response to chemotherapy. Jacobs wrote about these painful and scary experiences on her blog. Three years later, and on the other side of treatment, Jacobs is publishing a book, born out of her experiences, her expertise, and her blog: The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer.
The Silver Lining is a mix of memoir, practical advice, and encouragement. The title refers to the mental attitude and choices that kept Jacobs going even when times were hard.
“When I was in a deep and dark place, I would think, there has to be a silver lining,” Jacobs says. She doesn’t imply that there is anything good about breast cancer—just that there are personal choices that can help a person get through the experience.
“Silver linings don’t take away a diagnosis or nausea,” she says. “They don’t take away isolation or pain. They provide balance and perspective that allows people to get through difficult days. Day upon day, I would try to find something to help me endure.” It could be anything—a hummingbird outside the window, a favorite poem, or a kind gesture.
“I remember one story in particular. I was in my bathroom and I couldn’t get the six feet to bed,” Jacobs recalls. “I was a bald skeleton, and I felt so sorry for myself. I thought, ‘Ok, Miss Silver Lining, where’s your silver lining now?’ At that precise moment, my black Labrador, Buzz, came in and curled up next to me. Then my husband came in and sat with me and put my bald head in his lap. It was a low moment, but the silver lining was that they gave me the support and the love that I needed in that moment of vulnerability.”
The Silver Lining will offer both honest and uplifting information—a sort of compassionate roadmap—for people facing a daunting diagnosis. Each chapter is broken into two parts: the first part is memoir, studded with “lifelines”—pieces of advice or wisdom or humor—and the second is a guide to the practicalities of navigating the treatments.
“It’s a supportive guide to going through cancer,” she says. “I’m writing as someone who’s been a clinician on the side of the bed and a patient in the bed. The practical matters of contending with a cancer diagnosis and treatment can be overwhelming. There is so much information out there, and I’m curating it in a relatable way. For example: How do you ask the right questions and assemble a team of people to care for you? How do you change treatments? How do you handle needle-phobia or pack for chemo?”
Jacobs also writes about the emotional struggles that accompany illness.
“I have been in the bottomless pit of chemo despair. I have been on isolation island. And I write about what helped me get through it,” she says.
Jacobs lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband, Jeffrey (JD ’74), and their daughter. She still blogs five days a week and she speaks publicly about her experiences.
“Silver linings don’t take away the rain that comes with diagnosis, treatment, and recovery,” Jacobs says. “But they do provide an umbrella.”
The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer is published by Simon & Schuster and available wherever books are sold.