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The Power of Writing for Cancer Patients

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“To what shall I claim definition?

My life which is no longer the same,

The disease which ravages me,

Or the hope the trial brings?

The strong and vibrant man of yore has changed.”

Jack Ivey wrote those words – part of a longer poem (see below) – following a discussion in Writing a Life, a writers workshop for cancer patients receiving outpatient treatment at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “I introduced myself [to the group] as a survivor. Another person said she was ‘shlepping through’ with difficult. Further around the circle, another saw herself as a matador in a fight,” he said. “All of this prompted me to write ‘To what shall I claim definition.’ It just flowed from there.”

Writing a Life, created by members of Patient and Family Services at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, marks a first collaboration between the ACC and the University of Pennsylvania.  The monthly sessions are held on campus at the Kelly Writers House, a beautiful Victorian house built in 1851.  “It’s perfect for this group… so relaxing,” said Sandy Blackburn MSW, patient navigator.

Although Ivey has kept a journal since high school (“If I write things down, they make more sense.”) – and has written several novels since his cancer diagnosis in 2007 – he never connected writing with helping him cope with the disease. But studies show that writing about a traumatic or stressful situation often has a beneficial impact. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, studies “have demonstrated that emotional writing can influence frequency of physician visits, immune function, stress hormones, blood pressure.” Expressive writing has also been shown to “improve control over pain, depressed mood and pain severity.” 

Deborah Burnham, PhD, associate undergraduate chair in the University’s department of English, leads the monthly sessions. She starts each session with a poem that she hopes will resonate with the group’s personal experiences. A group discussion follows and then the participants separate to work on their individual pieces. “I’d never written a line of poetry in my life,” Ivey said. “But it just flowed out.”

But the group’s positive effects  go beyond writing.  Being with others who have undergone treatment for cancer “is probably one of the biggest draws,” Ivey said. “This group helped me grab hold of [the disease] and deal with it. It’s so nice to be in a place where other people understand what you’re going through. “

“In the group I can talk about things that are tucked way back in my mind and, when they come out, it’s a relief,” said Ginger Brodie, another participant.

The workshop is a small group – generally fewer than 15 attend each session – and the numbers and participants tend to fluctuate. But feedback shows that these monthly get-togethers are an important part of the participants’ lives. “It’s nice to know that once a month, I have a neat place to go to,” Brodie said. “The people in the workshop  feel like friends ..  even if I never see them again.”

Click here to read more about Writing a Life.


To What Shall I Claim Definition?

    To what shall I answer?

    Survivor, Schlepp, Matador?

    To what shall I listen?

    The nurses who do not feel?

    The techs who ply their trade,

    My body which screams against the assaults it endures?

    To what shall I claim definition?

    My life which is no longer the same,

    The disease which ravishes me,

    Or the hope the trial brings?

    The strong and vibrant man of yore has changed.

    Strength withered, stamina gone,

    All assaulted by that which hopes to cure.

    How now to define this man I now am?

    Are there remnants yet unscathed?

    Does anything yet remain untouched?"

    I long to live anew, a settler amidst the carnage,

    A shadow of a survivor yet within.

    The trial shows hope yet extracts its due,

    Leaving terminal fatigue and anguish in its wake.

    To what shall I claim definition?

    Merely Jack, just Jack, somewhere amidst the rest.


    by John Ivey


Photo caption: (from left): Workshop participants Millie Evans, Jack Ivey, Bill Marston, Ginger Brodie, and Cara Carroccia look to Deborah Burnham to lead their writing discussions.

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