Words to Live By Writing Workshop Brings Emotional Healing to Cancer Patients

Pam Roberts wrote about prayers — for help, for endurance, for the cancer to retreat … and for the chance to see her children grow into adulthood.“You know that you want help and guidance, but you accept that your prayers may be answered in ways that you can’t anticipate or desire. You are grateful even when things in your life suck. Your heart is full of prayers of thanksgiving,” she wrote.

“You find that you feel less scared of dying. And you are occasionally less scared of living.”

Those words were composed and shared at a ‘Spirit of the Word’ writing workshop for people whose lives have been impacted by breast cancer. Roberts, a breast cancer survivor herself, has taken part in — and, in recent years, moderated — many such workshops, including a 10-week program that began last month at Deerfield Academy.

“I think that, when you write, you go to a deeper place than when you’re speaking,” Roberts said. “I can speak from experience. When I’m writing, I write myself into a place of stillness that doesn’t happen in the same way when I’m speaking. I also find out truths that I did not know that surprise me. When I start writing, I don’t know where I’ll end up.”

She hopes that the workshops — conducted in partnership with the Baystate Franklin Hospital Oncology Department and Forest Moon Inc., a Southern Vermont-based provider of wellness programs for cancer sufferers — help others find the same place, and more importantly, give them another tool on the journey to healing.

Off the Beaten Path

Roberts became involved in writing as a form of therapy after searching for physical and emotional healing outside of traditional medicine following her 1993 diagnosis.

“My whole take on cancer was, I did western medicine, but I also searched all over for complementary therapies,” she said. “I did everything from acupuncture to nutrition — you name it, I tried it.”

During that time, Roberts was enrolled in a weekly writing workshop in Shelburne Falls, and she found that, no matter what prompt the moderator gave, she wrote about her experience with breast cancer, which necessitated a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and other life-changing treatments.

In her writing, she said, “I dealt with the emotional aspects of cancer and my fear of recurrence.” The workshop proved to be a healing experience for her, and inspired her to enroll in the IM School of Healing Arts in New York City, which certified her to lead writing workshops; she conducted her first one in 2003 through Cancer Connection, and eventually crossed paths with Cindy Blood, co-founder of Forest Moon.

Blood was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago and also struggled with the emotional aspects of healing; specifically, she could not find many services in Western Mass. specifically focused on the emotional journey of cancer. So she and her husband, Phil, launched Forest Moon in 2004 to provide affordable overnight and day programs aimed at improving the emotional well-being of those touched by cancer — both those who have the disease and their loved ones.

“Writing was one of the things we had developed in our curriculum, in addition to a lot of other activities, such as yoga, mindfulness, meditation, art, music — the whole gamut, things that are common sense,” Blood said. In 2006, Roberts became a writing facilitator at Forest Moon; the pair have conducted four writing workshops to date for cancer patients.

“I believe that everyone is a writer, and everyone has a unique voice that deserves to be heard,” Roberts said. “In this workshop, that voice is heard and reflected back to you.” In doing so, she said, participants can take a sad experience and transform it into something that has merit to other people. “That changes how the writer sees it, as well. It’s a really magical thing that happens.”

Word Associations

Not everyone writes exclusively about cancer, however. In each workshop, Roberts offers a prompt — a word or concept — and the participants have 10 minutes to write about whatever comes to mind. Then they may share what they have produced, although this is never mandatory.

“The prompt will bring something completely different from everyone in the room,” Blood said. “It may be as direct as ‘scars,’ and one will write about a mastectomy scar, and another about emotional scars, while another might write about some scar from childhood, completely unrelated to cancer. I find it completely fascinating what the prompts bring up.”

Blood said that some people who struggle to express themselves verbally have an easier time collecting their thoughts on paper first.

“Here, they can use their own words and have the option later whether to share it or not,” she said, which frees them up to express themselves with no pressure. Furthermore, she explained, participants tend to comment on the writing itself as much as the subject matter, lending an intellectual component that also removes some of the anxiety of sharing.

“People don’t say, ‘oh, I know exactly what you mean about chemotherapy.’ They say, ‘when the writer uses the word …’ By focusing on the literary merit of the work, it lends a different focus to the sharing, which I find to be uplifting.”

Indeed, one of the participants in a recent workshop commented that she benefited from “being able to write each week about my feelings on having cancer. It’s easier for me to write and read than to speak those feelings.” Said another, “the workshop gave us the opportunity to discover how similar our cancer experiences have been, even though each is unique. We all have shared many of the same emotions, and it is helpful to learn that. Everyone is willing to show their vulnerability.”

Vicki Sutton, oncology social worker at Baystate Franklin, called the workshops — the current one co-sponsored by Rays of Hope — “a way for people to get what is deep inside them out. Some people are afraid at first, but it’s so non-threatening, and Pam is the perfect person to be doing this. She’s gentle and thoughtful and intuitive.”

Sutton said at least one participant has had a piece of writing published in a magazine for cancer survivors. But she and the workshop’s coordinators said the most important benefit happens within each writer.

“There’s a spiritual aspect to it in that we feel connected,” Blood said. “Cancer is really lonely and isolating, and to be in a group with other people who have been touched by cancer in this way forms a connection that is really peaceful and supportive.”

A connection that, fortunately, begs to be put into words.

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