Storytelling and Cancer

Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning.” ~ Mary Catherine Bateson

I actually just read this quote in another cancer blog – Our Cancer – sponsored by NPR.  It reminded me of how important storytelling is in framing our experiences.  During my twenty-some years as a nurse, I have spent countless quiet hours listening to stories told by my patients.

I spent six years working in psychiatry.  For these patients struggling with emotional and mental stresses, storytelling actually becomes the central work of their therapy.  It is an effort to revisit pivotal moments of their lives, to retell these moments in the present in order to try and reveal something about the particular event that shed light on the crisis they now found themselves in.  The importance and preciousness of their stories was many times glaring.  Numerous conversations were prefaced by the words “I’m going to tell you something that I have never told anyone else.”

I think that in much the same way we persons with cancer look for ways and opportunities to tell our stories. I suspect that this is the underlying intent behind many cancer blogs.  But in other numerous smaller, less organized ways we seek to tell our tale.  It is what we run through when family amd friends call us up and ask about our progress, our latest round of chemotherapy, our most recent series of radiation treatments.  We patiently, sometimes enthusiastically recount the details – what the nurses said, how the oncologist looked at you after you said something odd, what the research article that you found on the internet seemed to say, how your spouse reacted when you started to vomit, how you felt when you first looked in the mirror after losing your hair.

And throughout this narrative we strive to weave details of our normal lives – how it was raining when you got to the clinic, that you were anxious when they had trouble starting the IV because that would make your chemotherapy late and you had to pick the kids up from school, how you needed to call the insurance company to question something on that last statement but you were just too tired.  Our experience is this strange mixture of the unreal and the mundane.  Our life needs to go on just as before even though it has been tilted crazily off balance.

And so we use stories to sort this all out.  We use storytelling as a means to somehow restore, at least partially, balance to our life that is wanting to spin madly in some other direction.

Stories are also our means on connecting.  They are part of the way in which we pull back on relationships that we sometimes fear might also tend to spin away.  For some of us, normally bound closer to our introverted selves, storytelling becomes a means of building new connections as we seek new meanings to the lonely, neglected corners of our lives.  It is a vocal, concrete expression of reaching out because at the heart of these things we do not want to go through this alone.  We do not want to be this cancer alone.  We do not want to succeed or to fail without witnesses to our suffering, our fears, our struggles, our triumphs, God willing.

I guess that is one of the thing I thought this blog could be – a compilation of stories, a depository of reflections and meditations from a wide variety of people.  People who before these events may have had little in common.  But people who, in having been transformed by cancer, have been brought together by commonalities now too precious and too personal.  I thought that, like other found places on the web, a small community could be built.

And so I invite you, no, encourage you to tell your story.  Not your whole story necessarily but the bits and pieces that so magically happen to fit some comment or anecdote that you might read here.  There is nothing to loose and so little to risk.  And what you might gain is a sense of community, of not going through this alone, of having been where many others have gone before and are just now preparing to go.  What you can give to others with your storytelling can be a comfort  and a blessing.  Let us share.


About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.

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