From pen to release
Writing group at Enloe Regional Cancer Center offers healing for broader community
“Everyone has something to tell,” Patricia Wellingham-Jones said during the most recent meeting of the Telling Our Stories therapeutic writing group at Enloe Regional Cancer Center on Sept. 24.
“Everyone has pains and sorrows and could use a little bit of expressive writing to help get that stuff out,” she said of the program’s value. “Once you get it onto the page, it gives you that detachment that allows for a different perspective on whatever your problem is.”
Wellingham-Jones serves as facilitator and “senior dignitary” for the monthly gathering, said Rebecca Senoglu, Enloe’s cancer-support program coordinator. While the program is oriented toward cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers, it’s free and open to the general public. In fact, the five women in attendance that evening were emphatic in encouraging participation from anyone interested in sharing their stories.
“There’s no experience necessary,” Senoglu said. “No one is going to be checking your spelling or sentence structure.”
Senoglu explained that Wellingham-Jones, a volunteer, is “immensely qualified” to lead the writing exercises, most of which involve about 10 minutes of writing to a prompt, followed by sharing with the group. The retired registered nurse (who holds a doctorate in psychology) has also written professionally for the past 30 years.
To top it off, she’s a cancer survivor and a caregiver for a cancer patient.
“I think I’m qualified on a number of fronts, but the pay isn’t very good,” Wellingham-Jones, a volunteer, said with a laugh.
For a workshop at a cancer-treatment facility, there was a surprising amount of laughter throughout the evening. The prompts were mostly lighthearted, including: “a chore you no longer do,” “a smell that reminds you of autumn,” and simply “orange.” Stories ranged from childhood memories of a mother’s homemade applesauce to a tangent about the effects of fireplace smoke on Butte County’s wintertime air quality. As Wellingham-Jones explained, healing hinges on the process of writing and sharing, rather than the stories themselves.
“It doesn’t matter what the subject is,” she said. “People will write things that are important to them; that act of writing and the communal spirit of reading it brings about some healing, even if we’re talking about some lighthearted subjects.”
Telling Our Stories is just one facet of Enloe’s emphasis on the healing arts. The hospital was awarded the national Spirit of Planetree Arts and Entertainment Award in 2008 for its healing-arts programs, which also include the Healing Art Gallery, a rotating exhibit of works by artists touched by cancer, and the Music for Healing program in which volunteers play for hospital patients.
And between the community library, lush outdoor-garden area, and the bright art-gallery displays, the cancer center is a welcoming place. Senoglu insists that is no mistake.
“It might seem like a fluffy thing, but research on healing environments—in terms of beauty and light—have very practical outcomes on pain and length of stay,” she said. “These things help people feel better, shorten hospital stays, and can decrease pain levels.”
The programs themselves are meant to offer a well-rounded approach to treatment in addition to traditional medicine, Senoglu said.
“They’ve been created because we realize that people with cancer have a lot more going on than just the tumor they’re dealing with,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotional and psychological stuff that needs to be dealt with, a lot of family stuff.”
She also noted that the better patients understand their situation, the more they feel empowered to “ask questions and take control of their situation by attending support groups or reading books.” Those patients, she said, are more mentally at ease during the treatment process.
In the 1998 book Creative Healing: How to Heal Yourself by Tapping Your Hidden Creativity, authors Michael Samuels and Mary Rockwood Lane outline how the mind of an ailing patient can react to practicing art therapy:
• Focus and concentration take you “elsewhere.”
• Attitude becomes hopeful.
• You experience feelings of peace and joy.
• Priorities shift to value life.
Senoglu explained that about a decade ago, she read a collection of monologues by cancer patients that inspired her to bring an expressive-writing program to Enloe Regional Cancer Center. But because her duties are limited to coordinating the group, she needed a dedicated volunteer to facilitate the writing exercises.
Wellingham-Jones proved to be the right woman for the job. Even after seven years of guiding the workshop, she still “goes home higher than a kite just from the energy that builds up in the course of this process,” she said. “You can feel the healing happen.”
Senoglu and Wellingham-Jones originally envisioned the group would be limited to the cancer center’s patients, but soon realized the workshops could be valuable to the greater community as well. Newly diagnosed patients (no matter the condition) and individuals in the bereavement process particularly find the exercises useful, Senoglu said.
As cancer treatments have advanced and more patients are able beat the disease and lead long lives, it’s not unusual for a Telling Our Stories participant to “start feeling better and move on.”
Senoglu and Wellingham-Jones, on the other hand, plan on attending for the foreseeable future.
“I come to this group because I love to do it,” Senoglu said. “This is for my own pleasure, not part of my job.”