Healing with words, through writing workshops for cancer patients

Penn Today
December 20, 2018

Jack L. Ivey learned he had cancer in 2007. Though he’d been writing since middle school, he had never penned any poetry. Then he joined the Writing a Life workshop, a program that encourages cancer patients at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) to express their feelings about cancer through writing. In the several years that Ivey has attended Writing a Life, he’s created a collection of poems that includes the above “The Wake-Up Call.”

People undergoing cancer treatment can feel anxious and depressed, says Sandy Blackburn, a patient support specialist at the ACC. For that reason, Blackburn teamed up with other support specialists Laura Kotler-Klein, Matthew Stevenson, and team leader Heather Sheaffer to offer Patient and Family Services such as support groups, mindfulness workshops, and yoga classes designed to alleviate stress and trauma.

Writing a Life, founded four years ago, is one of those programs. It provides patients with guided writing workshops, enabling them to write about and share their own experience with cancer. Al Filreis, faculty director at Kelly Writers House, suggested that patients gather in the 13-room Victorian house on Penn’s Locust Walk. Now patients meet once a month for creative writing workshops led by Deborah Burnham, associate undergraduate chair in the University’s English Department.

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