Author, Cancer Survivor Channeled Her Grief Into a Series of Books

Charlene Wexler has turned profound grief into a world of stories.

Wexler is the Chicago-based author of seven books as well as several short stories. Inspiration for what would become her 2014 debut novel, “Lori,” arrived following the loss of her son, Jeffrey, who received a diagnosis of leukemia in 1977 at the age of eight and died in 1981 at the age of 12.

“I always wrote for myself, and writing fiction is a new career. I started about 10 years ago,” said Wexler, who is now 80 years old.

“Cancer has been in our family for years: aunts, uncles, my mother, my grandfather, I had ovarian cancer, right now I have skin cancer. And we’ve dealt with all of them,” she explained. “And the cancer that really knocked us out was when my 8-year-old son, my firstborn, was diagnosed with leukemia. And we fought at Children’s Memorial (Hospital, now known as Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago). We dealt with that, we fought the cancer for four and a half years before he died.

“And during that whole time, I wrote, I kept journals. And then after he died, I was devastated and (I) really couldn’t get out of bed.”

Then, Wexler started writing.

Charlene Wexler began writing after her son was diagnosed with cancer.

“I took all my stuff together that I had been writing about him, and I wrote a story,” she said. “And I sent it to my sister who reads anything I write, who was there for me the whole time. And she said, ‘This is great, but it’s too devastating.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you try again? Nobody’s going to want to read this. It’s just too grief ridden.’”

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Wexler shifted her writing from the first-person to the third-person and moved from memoir into the realm of fiction.

“I found (that), my God, I could change it,” she said. “And instead of making him a boy, I made her a girl. And when I first started writing, I thought, ‘I’m going to make her survive it.’ That (even though) Jeffrey didn’t, I’m going to make Julie, the girl in my story, live. But then, as I started writing, I realized I wanted to add what happened to me and how I survived — and how I didn’t survive in the beginning.

“And then, after I wrote the first draft, I realized the book needed more than just a child dying from leukemia. And all of a sudden, the character Lori became stronger than the child that died. And I felt like there are a lot of issues I can deal with. A third of the book deals with the cancer, and it deals with surviving afterwards.”

Also from the “Cancer Horizons” podcast: Mother with Stage 4 Breast Cancer and Her Family ‘Focus on the Living’

For Wexler, a former teacher who also spent time working in her husband’s dental office, “Lori” became the start of the four-book Laughter and Tears series, and her work is currently being re-released via Speaking Volumes.

Wexler spoke with CURE®’s “Cancer Horizons” podcast about her cancer journeys, her path to becoming an author and the different challenges faced by patients and caregivers.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

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