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Everyone Has a (Cancer) Story to Share

Photo credit: Mass General Cancer Center

You may be hard pressed to find someone whose life has not been impacted in some way by cancer – as a patient or as a family member or friend of someone who has cancer.

Just as the type of cancer may differ, so does each patient’s journey through this disease. The Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center has introduced The Story Project as an effort to capture and share the journeys of the patients, family members, clinicians, and staff who have all been affected by cancer in some way or another, and to provide inspiration and support to others.

TrudiF., who was diagnosed with bone and thyroid cancer in 1987 while she was working at Mass General, says talking with others about their illness creates a bond. “People who go through similar experiences,” she says, “You understand each other.” Sharing the experience – and the story – can be quite therapeutic.
At Mass General, clinicians and staff members use a variety of integrative therapies as treatment for cancer. Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and art therapy all show benefits for helping alleviate symptoms of the disease as well as the after effects of treatment. KarenC. , a Mass General Cancer Center patient for two years, tries to take advantage of all these available options, especially support groups, yoga, and meditation. She says, “I like that they [Mass General] look at it as we’re not just treating the cancer; we’re treating the whole person.”

To treat the whole person, Mass General follows a collaborative approach with clinicians from various departments. Oncologists, psychologists, nurses, acupuncturists, social workers, and more all work together to guide and support patients and caregivers through the cancer experience. Kimberly Z. was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013. She is part of a clinical trial and is currently in remission. She knows, though, that her cancer will come back; there is no cure. “I can’t say enough about everyone here [at Mass General],” she says. “I feel like I’m this far because of Mass General. If I had been somewhere else, I don’t know if I would have gotten past 2013.”

Kimberly has faced some difficult challenges, but having a good attitude makes a big difference in her outlook. She says, “You appreciate people; you appreciate how you want to spend your time – spending it with your family, your friends, your kids.” William B., who has a rare form of prostate cancer, says, “You always have to keep going. Keep a good attitude.” Trudi thinks of it a little differently. “Trying to tell people to have a good attitude I don’t think is the way to go. Trying to encourage them to do as much positive things as they can is.”

Staying positive and doing positive things means a lot to DennisL. . He is a carpenter at Mass General – not a cancer patient – but volunteers his time to help pediatric cancer patients. He builds bird houses and pencil boxes for the kids and helps with pet therapy. Dennis recently took on a new role: Easter Bunny. “It’s really rewarding, and it’s cool because at the end of the day, if you give them an hour of fun when they thought they were coming here for their treatments,” he says. “[With] all that they have to go through, it’s worth it. We love that factor.”

EveB., a recent college graduate, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma right before her 21st birthday. As a communications and media studies major, she projected what she had seen in movies and on TV to her own experience. “I think that there is not enough representation of people who are sick, living lives as normal people.” Most of her friends didn’t know she was sick until she posted something on Facebook. “It is possible to have cancer and still be functioning in your life. I’m not broken. I’m still me.”

Most of the people who have shared their stories don’t let cancer define who they are, and they focus on the positives, rather than the negatives. Cancer patient Kathryn G. uses her faith to get her through the tough times, but she also lets herself “be real.” She says, “One friend wrote me a letter and said, ‘look for the blessing every day; there will always be at least one.’ I started having that outlook, and it has been very helpful.”

David S.’ story is one from the other side of the fence. He is a former patient service coordinator at the Cancer Center and interacted with patients at the front desk every day. “Being sick humbles people. It makes us appreciate the gift of good health, something we often take for granted,” he says. “Some of the stories I hear from patients have helped change my perspective on how I look at life. And that has helped me grow as a person.”

Everyone has a story to tell, and if telling it helps even one person, that’s a step in the right direction.