Cancer Stories: How We Make Sense of Cancer

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; 2015-2021 Cancer.Net Editor in Chief
March 22, 2018
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

We are all storytellers. We make sense of the world and our lived experiences through storytelling. We use stories to interpret events in our lives, find motive, assert our voices, and search for meaning. Stories help us cope with adversity and keep us grounded during uncertain times.

Research in psychology and social science has confirmed our intuition that stories help people cope with a serious illness.share on twitter   Any oncologist can tell you that people need not only a diagnosis and prognosis, but also a story that frames his or her illness. Just yesterday a patient told me that she knows that an early childhood toxic exposure caused her disease. Although there’s no way to prove or disprove this association, I heard in her tone a certain relief that came from knowing the cause of her illness. Having a story helped her accept and adapt to living with her incurable condition.

Over years of treating people with cancer, I have learned to listen for the elements of my patients’ stories: plot, voice, themes, and characters. Paying attention to these stories helps doctors find ways to have a difficult conversation. Because in listening to a person’s story helps us understand their values, dreams, and desires, we may recognize and respect their beliefs and experiences.

Oncologists also have stories that they need to share. They sometimes write to honor a patient, to share observations, and to process complex experiences and intense feelings. These stories are sometimes published in medical journals and become a source of discussion in the training of future oncology professionals. There is a section in ASCO’s Journal of Clinical Oncology devoted to publishing these kinds of stories by medical professionals. It is called the “Art of Oncology.” I believe “Art of Oncology” is the soul of this prestigious medical journal, filled with stories that are powerful and sustaining and are a source of inspiration for clinicians and researchers. (I am a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Clinical Oncology and the consultant editor for the “Art of Oncology.”)

Writing is an important mechanism for storytelling, but it is not the only one. There is a strong oral tradition in storytelling as well. Recognizing that listening to stories is a fundamental part of how we share our experiences, we launched a podcast series at Journal of Clinical Oncology, called “Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology.” This podcast series features essays read by professional actors, followed by a short conversation with the author. During these conversations, we learn interesting details that help us better appreciate the author’s perspectives and why they are sharing their deeply personal stories. “Cancer Stories” was designed to stimulate reflection and help us connect with each other, forming a robust and thoughtful cancer care community.

I hope you too will enjoy listening to this podcast series and feel inspired. Here is the most recent podcast. If you like it, be sure to subscribe and rate it.

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