Creating a Community of Breast Cancer Stories: April Stearns & Wildfire

“Do we really need more breast cancer stories?” a dear friend asks April Stearns, Founder and Editor of Wildfire Magazine, the  beautiful, purse-sized literary journal specifically geared toward readers and writers who are “too young to have breast cancer.”

A funny question to ask someone who has been fostering, supporting, and publishing heartfelt breast cancer stories, poems, photographs, and visual art since 2016. Her answer is simple, yet not easy.  Stearns says, “We always need more well-told breast cancer stories.”

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis has the potential to throw your whole life into chaos, which Wildfire subscribers know since almost all of them have been diagnosed with breast cancer. A well-told breast cancer story, therefore, is not about receiving this news. They are stories that reveal universal truths and are about how breast cancer has transformed or taught the writer what it means to be alive. Not surprisingly, Stearns is looking for the answer to poet Mary Oliver’s question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” 

April Stearns has always been a writer. When she was young, she used writing to make sense of growing up in a scary, sometimes violent household. She clearly remembers being in her bedroom pouring out her emotions and getting them “out of her body” and onto paper. In college, she shifted her focus to journalism and “reporting the facts.” It wasn’t until later that she learned to connect these two writing approaches. 

Stearns was diagnosed at 35 with Stage 3C, HER2+ invasive breast cancer. At the time, she was breastfeeding her daughter, so like many women who have to navigate parenting with a breast cancer diagnosis, she “put her head down and went through it.” Then, two years after her diagnosis, her father was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Having just been through thirteen months of active treatment, Stearns employed her professional event planning skills and just-been-there cancer knowledge to care for her father.

In the 5 ½ months that he lived, her father relished the opportunity to share his stories with his daughter. He told her stories of her childhood, the land he owned and farmed, and her mother. His stories connected them–both as father and daughter and as storyteller and listener–and she gained a deeper understanding of the power of storytelling, learning the “value of story as legacy.”

Wildfire Community—including Wildfire Magazine, free pop-up writing workshops, The Burn podcast, 6-week writing workshops, and a soon-to-be retreat and anthology— honors all that Stearns learned from her experiences of “figuring out how to hold a cancer experience.” 

“I wanted Wildfire to be a different kind of resource,” Stearns says. As a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer, she did not see others like her represented in resources or in treatment centers. She wanted Wildfire to feel like a “break from what breast cancer felt like,” either overly medicalized or cheerleader pink, and to be an easy place for women to “dip in and out of” to find real stories. In every issue, all of the writers share their age, diagnosis facts, and social media details, so that readers and writers can connect, not feel alone, and learn from each other.

Wildfire, in concert with other age-specific resources, has changed the narrative for doctors and medical institutions about what it means to have breast cancer at a younger age. They’re realizing that breast cancer is not just “an older person’s illness.” In the past 38 issues, Steans has featured themes such as Cancer Culture; Changemakers; Love & Intimacy; and (In)Fertility, to name a few. Annually, she features the Body Issue, this past June/July featuring guest editor Dana Donofree, founder and owner of AnaOno Intimates & Loungewear. 

The most recent issue, Money & Cancer, explores what money stories “tell us about our families, our beliefs, our loves, & our traumas.” She’s most proud of the MBC Issue, which is published every October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She wanted people with MBC to feel that within that month there is “something that is entirely about Stage IV breast cancer.” I am honored that my piece, “What I Seek is Already Within,” was published in the stunning 2021 MBC Stage 4: Survivorship issue

Recently, I participated in the July Pop-Up Writing Workshop for those diagnosed under 50 with MBC. Here, I connected with other women with MBC and now follow them on Instagram, but more importantly, I felt inspired by the writing prompt. Using Louise Erdich’s poem “Advice to Myself” as the jumping-off point, April’s prompt was to write a letter of advice to yourself. My own instructions encouraged me to let go of my teenagers’ messy rooms and unmade beds and offer them more love.  

For Stearns, when writers dive beneath the surface of what their doctors have told them about breast cancer, they have the opportunity to reclaim a sense of control even when they might feel out of control or afraid. When they begin to write about having breast cancer, they get to shape the whole experience, choosing which parts of the story are important, slowing down the whole experience, and focusing on one event. This process is very empowering!

“We need to tell our stories in our own words,” Stearns insists. “This is how and when the healing process begins.” These stories–the ones that offer vulnerability and bear witness to transformation–are the well-told breast cancer stories we need!  

Submissions to the annual MBC Issue of Wildfire are due on August 25, 2022. Wildfire is looking for well-told stories around Legacy Stories Past, Present, & Future themes. Past, meaning those who have influenced you; present meaning how you live day to day, and future, thinking about how you want to be remembered. 

Other Fun Facts About April:

April Stearns is in a book club with her husband. Each month, they choose a book for each other to read and discuss on date night. This month, they are reading her husband’s pick My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones.

Be the first to Read April’s “Working On It” piece here.

She recommends Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto because she loves the young, brash, and brave narrator and how Marchetto’s graphic memoir depicts moments in time with true, raw emotion.

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan is a novel about the interrelated stories of Corrigan’s breast cancer and her father’s late-stage bladder cancer. Corrigan gets what it means to be in that “middle place,” being a parent of younger children and being the child of aging parents. 

To her breast cancer and literary luminary dinner party, she’ll invite Beth Caldwell, co-founder of MET UP, and Rebecca Timlin Scalera, the founder of The Cancer Couch Foundation. These Breast Cancer Changemakers stayed in “Cancerland” and found ways to be fully conscious and connected while drawing much-needed awareness and dollars to MBC research. 

Finally, she’d invite her favorite award-winning poet Mary Oliver, because inevitably a Mary Oliver poem winds up everywhere, and she has always wanted to be in her presence. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: