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WRITING IN THE WORLD CANCER
Susmita Bhattacharya
on writing with people with serious illnesses
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 I found myself increasingly frequenting the Mustard Tree Cancer Support Centre at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth: both
for support and to meet others a ected by cancer. It’s a warm bright space, where hot drinks and biscuits, a listening ear, and a shoulder to cry
on are always available. In addition to the usual NHS services and those o ered by Macmillan,
writing prompts that would not add to the distress of participants. I wanted it to be a way of sharing space and time together.
Chemo also a ects your sense of taste – everything tastes metallic – so one exercise was
to write about a time when food tasted good. We discussed memories, then I asked them to write about a particularly delicious meal they’d had. Another exercise focused on music. In each case I asked a series of questions and they combined their written answers into a single piece of text.
‘At  rst I felt quite anxious when faced with
a blank sheet of paper, but I soon relaxed,’ one participant told me. ‘As everyone settled down to write, the silence became supportive rather than scary. For the  rst time in many months I was able to let words  ow freely from my brain and onto paper – and it didn’t matter whether what I wrote was good or bad. I found it a really healing experience, and re-discovered my love of writing.’
I have no formal quali cations for working
in a healthcare setting, but used my experiences
as a creative writing tutor and cancer survivor
to guide me. I’d also worked as an English tutor, teaching refugees and asylum seekers.  e training I received in that setting was invaluable, because the principles were similar – you need patience, empathy and sensitivity; gaining the trust of vulnerable participants is vital too.
My workshops were designed to help clear some mind space for the cancer patients, so that they could escape for a couple of hours from the terrifying world they were inhabiting and write about topics outside their present predicament. We shared memories, talked about our current situation, and about how writing or keeping a journal created a record that could be read and re ected upon later, when we moved on to the next stage of our cancer journey. One participant commented how amazed she was at the way each person wove their words into something completely original. It made her realise that what she wrote was okay, because it was uniquely hers.
 e sessions not only helped the participants, but also helped me regain my con dence in writing and teaching, something that was incredibly important for my recovery.
Of course I am not the only person engaged
in this type of work. I was inspired by a number
of writing projects that o er cancer patients and their carers an opportunity to engage with their creative side. ‘One Stage at a Time’ is a live spoken- word show and digital project conceived by poet Aoife Mannix, in partnership with Apples and Snakes and Maggie’s Oxford Centre. People a ected by cancer are invited to write poems, create postcards and share their feelings with people they care about (www.onestageatatime.co.uk).
Another project that I found to be e ective, especially for family and friends of cancer su erers, is the ‘Letters from Me to You’ project, created
by Alison Hitchcock and Brian Greenley.  is encourages people to communicate and reach
out by writing letters – such a personal way of getting in touch and sharing one’s feelings (www.frommetoyouletters.co.uk). ■
WHERE TO START
► Macmillan Cancer Support provides plenty of information on its website, but you could also approach your local
centre directly to ask if they’re interested in hosting a creative project. www.macmillan.org.uk ► National Association for Writers in Education (NAWE) provide advice and resources for writers working in healthcare settings. www.nawe.co.uk
► National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing supply a list of funding opportunities. www.artshealthandwellbeing. org.uk
► Lapidus offers information and networking for writers leading writing workshops for wellbeing. www.lapidus.org.uk ► Literature Works provides resources for writers and ideas for workshops. www.literatureworks.org.uk
► 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well: The Science and Wisdom of Writing and Journaling by Jackee Holder. Very useful source of prompts and ideas. ► 52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going by Jo Bell. Another invaluable source for poetry prompts.
‘as everyone settled down to write, the silence became supportive rather than scary’
SUSMITA BHATTACHARYA is a novelist, poet and short story writer, whose
work has appeared in Wasa ri, Litro, Roundyhouse, Tears in the Fence, Structo and Commonwealth Writers as well as been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her novel The Normal State of Mind (Parthian) came
out in 2015.
such as counselling, alternative therapies and  nancial advice, the centre also provides activities to promote wellbeing, things like singing groups, guitar lessons,  y-tying sessions.
Once I emerged from my own treatment, I wanted to do something for the Mustard Tree
to say thank you. Being a writer and writing
tutor, I o ered to lead creative writing sessions. I developed six sessions for anyone who wanted a safe space to express their feelings and write about their experiences – not necessarily about their cancer – with people on a similar journey.
One frequent side-e ect of the chemo
drugs used in cancer treatment is di culty
in thinking coherently, which leaves people
with less con dence and a tendency to retreat into themselves rather than stumble through conversations.  is was what I wanted to tackle in my writing workshops, so I was careful to provide
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