Jack L. Ivey was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. Although he had been writing since middle school, he had never written poetry. Then he joined the Writing a Life workshop, a program that encourages cancer patients at Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) to express their feelings about cancer in writing. Over the years that Ivey has been involved with Writing a Life, he has created a collection of poems which includes the above “The Wake-Up Call”.
“This program gave me a real gift,” he says. “It gave me new ways to process this whole cancer experience. Even when I feel very, very alone, I know that I am not. There’s this supportive community that’s there for each of us to express ourselves and stay connected.
For decades, therapists, counselors, and social workers have used writing therapy to help patients and clients who have suffered from emotional stress and trauma, as well as physical and mental illnesses. Initiated, in part, by social psychologist James Pennebaker, this form of cathartic therapy allows participants to creatively express their response to an emotional or traumatic event and can lead to a new sense of empowerment and ownership. a situation that might seem out of control, like being diagnosed with cancer.
People going through cancer treatment can feel anxious and depressed, says Sandy Blackburn, patient support specialist at ACC. For this reason, Blackburn has teamed up with fellow support specialists Laura Kotler-Klein, Matthew Stevenson and team manager Heather Sheaffer to offer Patient and Family Services such as support groups, mindfulness workshops and yoga classes designed to alleviate stress and trauma.
write a life, founded four years ago, is one such program. It offers patients guided writing workshops, allowing them to write and share their own experience with cancer. Al Filreisfaculty director at Kelly Writers House, suggested that patients congregate at the 13-room Victorian home on Penn’s Locust Walk. From now on, patients meet once a month for creative writing workshops led by Deborah BurnhamAssociate Undergraduate Chair in the University’s Department of English.
“It’s a simple idea,” says Burnham. “Writing helps people feel better. It makes people feel more empowered when they’re going through something out of their control, helps them feel less angry, or even gives them an outlet to express their anger.
She says that while it sounds intuitive, researchers have yet to determine why therapeutic group writing works so well. According to a to study published in 2006 in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, this type of writing occurs at cognitive, emotional, social, and biological levels, making it difficult to formulate a single theory.
“People have done a lot of research into why or how writing about your experience makes you feel better,” Burnham says, referring to researchers’ inability to determine how and why therapeutic group writing works. “But the bottom line is simple: the most important thing is that people feel better.”
Burnham volunteered to lead the final workshop during the first Writing a Life series in the spring of 2015. The program was designed to last only a short time, but, after a patient writer told Burnham that she wished there were more sessions, Burnham knew right away that she wanted to continue. That day, as the writers were sharing their work, she passed a written note to Blackburn that read, “I would be happy to lead more workshops.
Since then, with Burnham at the helm, the program has expanded to include patients who cannot physically travel to Kelly Writers House; twice a month, she leads a session parallel to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. Some patients even attend both.
“We’ve become a real tribe,” says Ivey. “There is a strong sense of belonging within the group, even though we have each had very different but shared experiences with cancer.
Ivey says new people are often scared when they first join. “But after these [first] two o’clock, apprehension lifts,” he says. “Any hesitation you felt about sharing your work or commenting on the work of others is gone.”
The workshops begin with a method borrowed from social workers: writers sit in a circle and take turns saying their name and a word or two that describes how they are feeling that day. Burnham says she discourages words like “good” or “okay,” and instead pushes writers to dive deeper, using words like “apprehensive” or “melancholy.”
She then provides a writing prompt, which encourages participants to reflect on a specific aspect of their life or a certain moment in their treatment. Sometimes the prompts are poems, other times a paragraph from a cancer memoir. Writers then spread out to write for about an hour, some settling into the large, comfy armchairs at Kelly Writers House, some finding a quiet corner in the space. Social workers like Blackburn provide emotional support and physical help to writers when needed. Then the group meets again for everyone to share their work.
“This program saved my life,” says Sandra Johnson, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2016. “I no longer view my diagnosis as a death sentence. I see this as an opportunity to do the best in my life. I used to always ask, ‘Why me?’
“I love Deb’s workshops because her suggestions come from all facets of life,” adds Johnson. “Even though I was feeling really depressed, I was going to a workshop and I started feeling so relieved when I walked out. It could be a word, a phrase, or even just a smile. The contagious positivity hits me every time.
Now Johnson is writing a book called “Why Not Me?” which took root in one of the Write a Life workshops. After suffering from deep post-diagnosis depression and constantly wondering why this had happened to her, she woke up one day and thought, “Why not me?
“I thought if I could survive the loss of my mother to cancer, be a single mother and spend time in prison, I could get away with it,” she says. “No one can take away the ups and downs from your life. To get through life, we must overcome. This is your story; this is your life.
Writing a Life is open to anyone diagnosed with cancer. Writing experience is not necessary, and Abramson Cancer Center social workers can help you with the writing process. For more information or to register, call 215-662-6968 or email Sandy Blackburn at [email protected].