This Writing Program Helps Cancer Patients Reclaim Their Personal Narrative

“Holding the pen, writing about it, gives you some control back.”

Courtesy of Richard DeWitt

“You have cancer.”

Hearing those three words shatters your personal narrative, says Judith Kelman, founder and director of Visible Ink. “Plans are put on hold. People’s identities become cancer patients.”

Having lived through the experience with a number of friends and family members, Kelman understands the need to remind patients that being diagnosed with a serious illness “doesn’t mean that the illness defines you.”

To help cancer patients reclaim control over their story, she created Visible Ink, a writing program at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where mentors, including world-class journalists and best-selling authors, offer one-on-one writing sessions to patients.

Patients of the program have written stories ranging from comedy sketches to poetry — some related to their disease, while others are not. Every year, professional actors volunteer to perform the patients’ written work on stage, says Kelman. Over 600 people attended this year’s performance on April 16, which marked Visible Ink’s 10th anniversary.

Kelman recalls a heart-wrenching piece written by a woman who, while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, lost her daughter. The story detailed the experience of losing a child and the feeling of never really knowing if she’s “nowhere or somewhere.”

Lisa Goldstein, a breast cancer survivor in Visible Ink, told Roseanne Colletti on NBC New York, that “holding the pen, writing about it, gives you some control back.” She added that participating in the program left her feeling “inspired, hopeful, uplifted and transformed.”

A lot of people seek diagnosis and treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering, so Visible Ink has had the opportunity to reach patients from all over the world. Kelman says mentors work with patients remotely via phone, email, and FaceTime.

Over the last 10 years, Visible Ink has worked with about 2,000 patients from ages five to 95. The program is free and solely supported by grants and donations.

“Physicians help people heal physically, but [patients are] left with emotional scars and tears in their personal story,” Kelman explained. By giving them an outlet to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences, the program provides patients a way to heal, grow and tell the world: “Here’s my creativity. Here’s my voice. I’m in charge.” 

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