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Home  /  Integrative Cancer Care  /  Mind  /  Storytelling for Cancer Patients

Storytelling for Cancer Patients

By Jeannine Walston and Lora Matz, MS, LICSW


Storytelling“Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives a bit wiser.”
-Clarisa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

What is storytelling?

Storytelling identifies, expresses, and even shapes the past, present, future, accomplishments, challenges, life goals, dreams, purpose, values, and other fabrics in the tapestry of who we are as human beings.

Expressed verbally, through writing, and other art forms, when people tell their own story, they are reflecting on themselves and their life’s journey.

What are the potential health benefits of storytelling for cancer patients?

Storytelling may help people define themselves, their experiences, world, and relationship to life in general. Stories can provide the opportunity for people to make meaning and even have a witness. Cancer stories go beyond personal benefits to cancer patients, caregivers, and those impacted by the disease in other ways.

Studies suggest that writing about challenging life experiences such as trauma improves health. Expressing rather than repressing feelings about stressful events can enhance well-being, reduce emotional stress, decrease frequency of medical visits, and improve immune functioning, according to studies by psychologist James Pennebaker, PhD, and others.

Storytelling in a cancer patient-provider consultation also helps cancer care providers understand the whole person.

In honoring our stories, there are many opportunities for meaning making, positive life changes, connection, and healing, as described by Lora Matz, MS, LICSW.

  • We can search for wholeness among our fractured parts.
  • We can explore our past, come to a more profound understanding of our origins, and future directions.
  • We can create awareness for how the past interfaces with the present, and how the present ebbs back into the past.
  • We can journey inward and discover connections previously not understood or acknowledged.
  • We can come to know who we are in new and unexpected ways.
  • We can formulate our view of the world through words.
  • We can determine how adversity has enriched our meaning and purpose in life.
  • We can explore how love experienced and love lost have influenced our time on Earth.

What are some types of stories?

In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank defined three types of stories used by people dealing with health challenges that he calls illness narratives that apply to those affected by cancer.

Restitution Narrative

”Restitution stories attempt to outdistance mortality by rendering illness transitory. It is a response to an interruption, but the narrative itself is above interruption. It is all about the body returning to its former image of itself before illness.”

Chaos Narrative

”Chaos stories are sucked into the undertow of illness and the disasters that attend it. Chaos stories remain the sufferer’s own story, but the suffering is too great for a self to be told. The voice of the teller has been lost as a result of the chaos, and this loss then perpetuates that chaos.”

Quest Narrative

”Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest. The quest narrative affords the ill person a voice as teller of her own story, because only in quest stories does the teller have a story to tell.  Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where she is in life, and where she may be going. Stories are a way of redrawing maps and finding new destinations.”

Jeannine Walston would like to thank Lora Matz, MS, LICSW for her input related to Storytelling.