Melissa Greene’s Cancer Support Writing Workshops
Foster Peaceful Self-Expression
Melissa Greene with patient
Professional writer Melissa Greene, who conducts Write The Heart creative writing workshops from her studio in Lancaster, sees first-hand how the power of the pen can instill a sense of calm and help cancer patients on their journeys during treatment and recovery. Since 2014, Greene has led free, cancer support writing workshops at The Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute. Greene emphasizes that those workshops teach not just the craft of writing, but how writing can be an emotional release and keep patients focused in the present moment.
“The workshop is a place where we approach writing through poise, delicacy and precision of thought,” says Greene. “Because it’s a cancer support writing workshop, some people think we’re going to direct everything toward the topic of cancer, but I always let people know that they can write about the cancer experience—or not. We’re also there to have a bit of fun. I think people find our workshops therapeutic in that we don’t focus directly on cancer.”
Greene was recently named as a collaborator in a medical study, “The Effect of Creative Writing in the Mood of Patients with Cancer”, published in the March 1 issue of BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care medical journal (tinyurl.com/y2edckjy). Greene taught a one-month pilot workshop for the study, which became a subsequent six-month weekly workshop for patients with terminal cancer at the Hershey Medical Center/Penn State Cancer Institute. The doctors distributed a form to patients to study their moods, before and after class. The study concludes that, “It is feasible for patients with cancer to attend CWW (creative writing workshops). Our results also show a positive effect on mood in the CWW arm.”
Greene often hears from patients how writing has both calmed and buoyed their spirits during treatment and recovery. She says they are especially thankful to be able to express whatever the current emotion is they are experiencing, at the moment. Participants include those with all types and stages of cancer, as well as their caregivers.
The cancer support workshops are structured similar to Greene’s creative writing workshops, held in her personal studio. She is known for using objects as sensory props, or as Greene calls them, “whimsical objects of delight”, asking participants to describe their first thoughts on everything from a bird’s nest, to a hard-boiled egg, to a green New Guinea tree snail. Participants are then given free reign to follow their first impressions. As one thought leads to another, the creative process naturally unfolds.
“My job is to reduce the impulse for perfectionism, to reduce fear and eliminate self-consciousness so that creativity can emerge freely without our minds telling us to stop,” she says. “My work is about jumpstarting our writing, and a huge step toward that is helping people remember playfulness and laughter. Both are necessary to help us relax, before we can create. The BMJ (study) is opening a door by affirming that writing therapy work is not just a new age notion; hospitals are looking more carefully at the relationship between arts and medicine. Patients tell me again and again that medicine, alone, is not enough. Writing, alone, is also not enough, but together they create a total healing picture.”
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.