Jack L. Ivey learned he had cancer in 2007. Though he’d been writing since middle school, he had never penned any poetry. Then he joined the Writing a Life workshop, a program that encourages cancer patients at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) to express their feelings about cancer through writing. In the several years that Ivey has attended Writing a Life, he’s created a collection of poems that includes the above “The Wake-Up Call.”
“This program has given me a real gift,” he says. “It’s given me new ways to process this whole cancer experience. Even when I feel very, very alone, I know that I’m not. There’s this supportive community that’s there for each of us to express ourselves and remain connected.”
For decades, therapists, counselors, and social workers have used writing therapy to help patients and clients who have suffered emotional stress and trauma, and physical and mental illnesses. Pioneered, in part, by social psychologist James Pennebaker, this cathartic form of 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 over a situation that might feel uncontrollable, such as a cancer diagnosis.
People undergoing cancer treatment can feel anxious and depressed, says Sandy Blackburn, a patient support specialist at the ACC. For that reason, Blackburn teamed up with other support specialists Laura Kotler-Klein, Matthew Stevenson, and team leader Heather Sheaffer to offer Patient and Family Services such as support groups, mindfulness workshops, and yoga classes designed to alleviate stress and trauma.
Writing a Life, founded four years ago, is one of those programs. It provides patients with guided writing workshops, enabling them to write about and share their own experience with cancer. Al Filreis, faculty director at Kelly Writers House, suggested that patients gather in the 13-room Victorian house on Penn’s Locust Walk. Now patients meet once a month for creative writing workshops led by Deborah Burnham, associate undergraduate chair in the University’s English Department.
“It’s a simple idea,” says Burnham. “Writing makes people feel better. It makes people feel more competent when experiencing something out of their control, helps them feel less angry, or even gives them an outlet to express anger.”
She says that while this seems intuitive, researchers have yet to pinpoint why therapeutic group writing works so well. According to a study published in 2006 in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, this type of writing occurs on cognitive, emotional, social, and biological levels, which makes it difficult to formulate a single theory.
“People have done a great deal of research as to why or how writing about your experience makes you feel better,” Burnham says, referring to researchers’ inability to pinpoint how and why therapeutic group writing works. “But the bottom line is simple: The most important thing is that this makes people feel better.”
Burnham volunteered to lead the final workshop during the initial Writing a Life series in the spring of 2015. The program was designed to run for just a short period of time, but, after a patient-writer told Burnham she wished there were more sessions, Burnham knew right away she wanted to continue. That day, as writers shared their work, she passed a written note to Blackburn that read, “I’d be happy to lead more workshops.”
Since then, with Burnham at the helm, the program has expanded to include patients who can’t travel physically to Kelly Writers House; twice a month, she hosts a parallel session at 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 community within the group, even though we’ve each had very different but shared experiences with cancer.”
Ivey says that new people often feel fearful when they first join. “But after those [first] two hours, the trepidation lifts,” he says. “Any hesitancy that you felt about sharing your work or commenting on others’ work has disappeared.”
Workshops begin with a method borrowed from social workers: Writers sit in a circle and take turns saying their name and one or two words that describe how they’re feeling on that particular day. Burnham says she discourages words like “fine” or “okay,” and instead pushes writers to dive deeper, using words such as “apprehensive” or “melancholy.”
She then provides a writing prompt, one that encourages participants to think about a specific aspect of their lives or a certain moment in their treatment. Sometimes the prompts are poems, other times a paragraph from a cancer memoir. The writers then disperse to write for about an hour, some settling in the big, comfortable chairs of Kelly Writers House, some finding a quiet corner in the space. Social workers like Blackburn provide emotional support and physical aid to the writers if needed. Then the group reconvenes for everyone to share their work.
“This program has been a lifesaver for me,” says Sandra Johnson, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2016. “I no longer look at my diagnosis as a death sentence. I look at it as an opportunity to do what’s best in my life. I used to always ask, ‘Why me?’
“I love Deb’s workshops because her prompts come from all facets of life,” Johnson adds. “Even if I was feeling really down, I would go into a workshop, and I started feeling so uplifted coming out. It could be a word, or a phrase, or even just a smile. The infectious positivity hits me every time.”
Now Johnson is writing a book called “Why Not Me?” which took root in one of the Writing a Life workshops. After suffering from a deep post-diagnosis depression and constantly questioning why this happened to her, she woke up one day and thought, “Why not me?”
“I thought, if I can make it through losing my mother to cancer, being a single mother, and spending time in jail, I can make it through this,” she says. “Nobody can take away the ups and downs in your life. In order to go through life, we have to overcome. That’s your story; that’s your life.”
Writing a Life is open to anyone with a cancer diagnosis. Writing experience is not necessary, and social workers from Abramson Cancer Center can assist in the writing process. To learn more or to register, call 215-662-6968 or email Sandy Blackburn at Sandy.Blackburn@uphs.upenn.edu.