Cancer and the art of storytelling

It seems to me that we are always reinventing ourselves through the process of storytelling. This process is even more heightened when dealing with crises like critical illness. Once we are past the state of shock, we assume an “attitude” about our illness whether we know it or not.

My husband met a woman the other day who has terminal cancer. Apparently when my husband expressed some sympathy, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Hey, I don’t have to worry about retirement savings. I’ve been travelling like crazy and having a good time”. She had decided that her story was not that of a victim, but of one who was going to enjoy every damn minute.

Some of the therapeutic writing programs for cancer patients use storytelling techniques. Storytelling gives people a chance to express how they feel and to choose how they tell their story. By choosing, they get to be an active agent in how others see them and how they see themselves.

I stumbled upon this video which includes interviews several young cancer survivors. They are on a sailing excursion run by a couple who specialize in a kind of storytelling therapy.

I believe the formal term for this kind of storytelling is Narrative Therapy. There is a whole body of study on this subject which looks in-depth and interesting.

The exciting part of this process for me is the power to choose the story – we don’t have to let it choose us. I believe that the therapeutic aspect of storytelling is the realization of the level of control we have over how we see and present our lives. There is no getting away from real pain, suffering and fear. And I don’t judge anyone’s “choices” – we all do the best we can.  But perhaps by writing our own stories, we don’t have to be passive victims. For me, I can decide to choose hope over despair; Humour over bitterness. I can choose to still “get down” like Viola Moriarty was portrayed in her daughter Anna’s cartoon a couple of weeks ago. It is a liberating feeling.

So here’s my storytelling story. Now I have not told this to very many people (so SHHHH).  Shortly after my diagnosis I was scheduled to have a stem cell transplant, a fairly serious procedure. My lovely in-laws had provided me with a stack of good books to take with me into the hospital and they included the first two Harry Potter books (this was 12 years ago). As I read about the boy wizard I decided that I could look at myself as if I was Harry Potter. I was targeted for some quest, by evil lord Amyloidosis. While the quest challenged me, I could be brave like Harry.

When I saw my illness in the light of a quest, somehow it made things easier.  There were moments where I felt like ripping out my IV and throwing on my superhero cape – at least until the nausea set in.  I actually tried to write a children’s story about a lazy pig who was called to a quest (he didn’t ask for the quest, the quest asked for him -ooooooo, deep). So there you have my deep dark secret that I only had told two people about.

Now it’s your turn. C’mon, pony up. What’s your story?


2 thoughts on “Cancer and the art of storytelling

  1. Maggie says:

    Well I hope the ‘lazy pig’ you refer to isn’t how you think of yourself, as you’re anything but from my experience! Great perspective though – I agree wholeheartedly that the mindset we adopt, or story we tell ourselves can make a huge difference in each day/moment of our lives. As I went through 2 years of treatment, I was focused on enduring and just getting through, as I approached a lot of things in my life at that time. After it was over, something began to change inside of me. I was no longer willing to ‘endure’ or ‘get through’ any part of my life anymore. I slowly began to make small and then much bigger changes in what I was doing (i.e. work, education, socializing, etc.) and how I approach each aspect of my life. I tell myself that cancer is the catalyst that challenges me to discover who I really am, and live in honour of my real self each day. It was not a waste of time, or time better spent, but instead a very real, painful and much-needed wake-up call. It is a challenge I love living into!


  2. immiller says:

    Have you heard of If not, look it up…similar idea to what you are doing here by asking people to share their stores…like Maggie above…how about making it easier for everyone to read these stories? I’m not a techie but you are. Love (is that the right word?) getting your stories everyday even if I don’t respond. Hugs, Irene

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