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Writing is a Healing Force

NCCC cancer patients find emotional and physical benefits while working with an expressive writing coach

NCCC Creative Writer in Residence Marv Klassen-Landis offers patients and their families the opportunity to write poetry, prose, or letters—or to listen as he reads to them.

Through expressive writing, Marv Klassen-Landis helps patients express unspoken thoughts or fears, or to uncover memories that can take on new meaning and help them cope with their experience with cancer.

The power of music, visual art, poetry, story-telling, and dance has been used as a healing force in every culture. At the Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC), the Creative Arts Program team of artists supports, coaches, teaches, and nurtures patients who want to experience this healing power. In addition to visual arts and therapeutic harp music, we offer creative writing and story-telling for patients coming to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and also for those who stay in our inpatient cancer units.

Expressive writing is an integrative support tool known to bring health benefits to patients

Expressive writing—creating prose and poetry—can increase emotional resilience and a sense of meaningful connection to life, making it a truly integrative support tool that is noninvasive and easy to access. Studies of expressive writing in medical settings (1) noted specific health benefits including:

  • decrease in physician visits
  • decrease in stress hormones and blood pressure levels
  • decrease in depressed mood
  • improved control over pain
  • increase in self-awareness

Marv Klassen-Landis, the NCCC creative writer in residence, brings more than 20 years experience teaching the literary arts to the Creative Arts Program to our Lebanon, NH, location. He offers patients and their families the opportunity to write poetry, prose, letters, or to listen as Marv reads to them.

The Voice
by Brenda Nightingale

When I find myself beginning to fall,
When life is overbearing,
I’m reminded of the rolling meadow
With its one big oak tree,
My personal space,
The place my mind goes to.
The rustling leaves in the breeze speak.
My spirit recognizes the voice calling me
To the place I go for peace and relaxation.

From Telling Our Stories through Word and Image, original work by patients, loved ones, and staff, November 5, 2013

Expressive writing sessions can start by telling and listening to stories

People who have not written prose or poetry since high school often hesitate when they first visit with Marv as they rest in their infusion chair or bed. He often begins a visit by reading aloud the work of other patients from pages in a colorful binder he carries in his bag.

Patients and family members soon find themselves relating to the feelings, hopes, and fears of other people with cancer. Marv's binder of patient work includes humorous stories of life on the farm or encounters on a back road with a slow moose, as well as personal reflections on cancer. Sometimes laughter ensues, sometimes tears fall, and then smiles come. But the profound power of simple words expressed from the heart helps listeners to also find their voices.

A writing coach can help patients express unspoken thoughts and fears

The nursing staff will often ask Marv to visit with particular patients but often he acts as a roaming muse, working with patients in one-on-one sessions as he visits outpatient and inpatient areas of DHMC and NCCC. Through the office of Patient and Family Support Services, Marv and volunteer (and published poet) Laura Foley also offer writing groups that run for six to eight weeks throughout the year.

A patient working with Marv may spend an hour story-telling, poem-making, rhyming words together, or using words to express the feelings underneath a memory. Patients often say that they are surprised by the power of their own words, and patients and family members can feel their spirits lift as they share meaningful moments on paper or through recollected stories.

Sometimes a journal is given to a patient during a long infusion of chemotherapy, or to a family member who feels inspired to continue writing after leaving the cancer center. In this way a person can continue the process that felt so meaningful during their sessions with Marv.

One patient shared that initially she spoke hesitantly while Marv listened. As she spoke Marv reflected back her words and memories. "When Marv visited me I wanted to write, but I was anxious," Lisa said. "Instead I spoke and he wrote my words down. I was able to speak some truths about having cancer that I have not been able to speak aloud before. We wrote a poem together with these words and it was cathartic for me."

(1) The Connection between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature Heather Stuckey, D.Ed. And Jeremy Nobel, MD MPH in American Journal of Public health Feb 2010 Vol 100 254-263).
By Deborah J. Steele, manager Patient Services Programming

Writing Group for Those Touched by Cancer and Other Life-Limiting Illnesses

Explore your journey through writing poems, and sharing memories, letters, stories, and journals. Come in person, or call the toll-free line. Monday evenings from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, NH. Registration required. Please call (603) 650-7751

May 27, 2014