Many of you know that I’ve started writing articles now and then for Healthline. It was flattering to be asked to write for them, and it’s even nicer that my editor liked my suggestion that I write as a physical therapist who has been a breast cancer patient, who often treats cancer patients, and can thus offer clinical advice.
It’s been interesting, to say the least, to be on this side of the editing process, after years of editing myself and others. Now I have to comply with a lengthy list of submission guidelines and rules about what kind of references and links I’m allowed to use. Years ago, I helped edit a magazine, so I know what it’s like to deal with writers who submit appalling copy and are not receptive to editorial suggestions. With all that in mind, I’ve tried and generally succeeded in sending my editor decent copy, and so far, he’s been appreciative, and his edits have been few and apt.
Back in November of 2015, I submitted a lengthy piece about arm and shoulder pain with breast cancer. It included a section with exercise advice and descriptions. My editor suggested breaking it into two articles, one with the clinical explanation of why we develop arm and shoulder pain during and after treatment, and the other with the exercises themselves. I agreed. We both thought it would be helpful to include pictures or illustrations. Since we couldn’t use pictures from someone else’s website because of copyright restrictions, he said he would see if Healthline could arrange for some.
Meanwhile, the clinical article was published, while work continued on the exercise article. A few weeks later, my editor emailed me some exercise photos that were taken by one of Healthline’s freelance photographers. As photos go, they were okay. The photographer and the model both got the poses right from my descriptions. But they were wrong for my article. They showed a perky young woman of about 20, glowing with health, dressed in a tight pink spandex camisole, her long hair perfectly coifed. She was photographed in a glitzy health club, against a backdrop of barbells and weight-training equipment. I was flabbergasted. It took me a day or two to get my shock under control, and write, with some trepidation, what I hoped was a diplomatic email to my editor, pointing out that he might want to rethink them. My exercises, I told him, were aimed at people, mostly women, who had just had breast surgery, who might have lymphedema as well, who were mostly not 20 years old, who were sick and possibly facing chemotherapy and radiation, and who needed some gentle exercises they could do at home. I didn’t hear back from him, which felt a little ominous, and then the holiday season arrived, and I had other things to think about.
After the first of the year, I finally got an email from my editor suggesting a few new topics for articles. My unpublished exercise article, however, was not mentioned. I realized I couldn’t start another article until the exercise piece was resolved one way or another.
As a physical therapist, I’ve handed out hundreds, possibly thousands, of home exercise programs in my career. If you’ve ever had rehab, you’ve probably received them. You know what they’re usually like. Sometimes, I scribble verbal descriptions only. Often, I throw in a few stick figures. Sometimes, I have time to print out pre-made programs with illustrations showing age-neutral, nondescript people. In the past decade or so, software and websites for rehab therapists have endeavored to include illustrations showing people of all ages and genders, so that we can target our handouts more closely to the patients who will be following them.
Since Healthline needed illustrations they could own, I sat myself down, opened Illustrator, and decided to draw them some. I drew one that went with one of the exercises in my still-unpublished article. Then I emailed my editor, attached the drawing, asked if we might try to get the thing online at last, and offered to do the drawings myself. He wrote back to say that he couldn’t assign any more freelance art projects right now, but he might be able to contract me for illustrations in a few months. He agreed with me that he was disappointed that the photographs didn’t conform to his suggestions about setting and attire. Meanwhile, he looked forward to a draft for my next article. He didn’t say anything about when or if the exercise article would get posted.
Two mornings later, I checked Facebook before leaving for work, and lo and behold, my friend Nancy, of Nancy’s Point, had posted a link to Healthline for my exercise article. They had decided to publish my explanation and descriptions, sans pictures. At last!
On the whole, this freelance writing gig continues to be full of mostly pleasant surprises, although I will admit that I am often a bit mystified about how and when decisions get made. But I’m grateful to my editor, and to Healthline, for going the distance with me on this. They say that every picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, words alone are all you need. And at least I managed to spare us all from being excruciatingly represented by a happy, pink-clad model who looked like she’d probably never suffered anything worse than a hangnail. Although I probably shouldn’t make assumptions, because too many of us have had some fool tell us, “But you don’t look sick!” You never know. In any case, in the future, you may see this drawing on the left, or perhaps other illustrations drawn by yours truly, accompanying another article. Or not. Seems appropriate that the first one I drew was a shrug.