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San Diego Cancer Patients Find Healing in Writing

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(Photo: Cancer patients participate in writing exercises to help them cope with their illness. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

It takes a lot of fortitude to survive cancer. Getting through chemotherapy and radiation is tough enough. Then there are the emotional challenges of dealing with a potentially fatal disease. Some cancer survivors say they get a lot of help from writing about their experience. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

At Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Sharon Bray faces a roomful of cancer survivors.

She asks them a series of point blank questions.

Bray: Why do you need to survive? What keeps you going? What helps you survive?

Bray’s questions are not rhetorical. All of these people have faced staggering challenges. A diagnosis of cancer, chemotherapy and radiation, and all of the side effects that go along with them. 

These folks are here to write about their feelings, their experiences …and share them with their fellow cancer survivors. Bray prompts them again.

Bray : Why do I need to survive? What pulls me forward, and keeps me living? Okay, ten minutes.

The survivors grab their pens and have at it.

Sharon Bray is a cancer survivor herself. She discovered the healing power of writing when she was recovering from her treatments. Bray says cancer patients carry a lot of emotions around with them: anger, sorrow, loss, depression.   

Bray: When you give voice to those emotions, you’re releasing them, you’re getting them outside of yourself, so that you can start to examine them, and establish a different perspective.

Bray says research shows writing is therapeutic when you take your feelings and thoughts and covert them into a coherent narrative. And she says the most healing writing of all is done in the presence of others, where people share their stories.

Karen Orosz lives in Normal Heights. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in late October, and had a mastectomy just after Thanksgiving.

Karen Orosz: When I’m writing, I’m not really certain of what I’m writing, I’m just doing a stream of thought. But when I read it, I realize there is a pain I have, and that had been untouched, and so it gives a voice to feelings I can’t articulate, to others or myself.

Orosz says in the outside world, she tries to minimize her disease and what she’s going through.

Orosz: You don’t want people to begin looking at you as someone different, as someone actually ill, and treat you differently. And so, I put on a façade, and that façade becomes a reality for me. And in this place, there’s no room for façade, there’s no time for it. The writing’s brief, it’s prompted, and there’s no time to edit yourself. It just, it comes from the heart.

Sharon Bray calls the group back to order. They take turns sharing what they’ve written.

Cancer Patients: I’m not sure why I need to keep on living, but I do. Why? I like to cuddle, etcetera, with my sexy husband. I like to hear the song in my daughter’s voice when she tells me some funny story….As I was going through my chemo treatments, the question came to me: Is it really worth going through this? There’s no quality of life at all. Nothing tastes good, nothing feels right….I will survive, so I can create a suitcase of memories for my daughter. I want those ordinary days, of walking to school, wiping noses, of changing diapers, of lying on the grass looking up at the sky.

Survivor Mario Duran says he always walks out of the writing sessions feeling better.

Duran: It really helps a lot, because the fact that you laugh, you cry, you just get it out of your system, you feel good about it. And when you feel good about it, you feel good about life.

Sharon Bray will lead another writing workshop for cancer survivors at UCSD Moores Cancer Center. It will get underway in late March.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

Scripps' next therapeutic writing workshop will run from May 5 to June 30 -- every Monday from 9:30-11:30 a.m.  Location is Scripps Cancer Center at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.  Participants need to pre-register by calling (858) 554-8533.


Scripps' next therapeutic writing workshop will run from May 5 to June 30 (every Monday from 9:30-11:30 am.  Location is Scripps Cancer Center at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.  Participants need to pre-register by calling (858) 554-8533.


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