Cancer Patient Finds Healing Through Power Of Words

Jul 17, 2019, 12:05 PM

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Last year Lisbeth Leon was diagnosed with bone cancer.  She received typical chemotherapy but she also got a different kind of therapy.  She didn’t see an oncologist for it.  She saw a poet.

Susan Sample is the resident writer at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

“I’m not a therapist and I’m not trained in therapy,” she says, but adds “psychologically and emotionally, writing definitely benefits patient and family members.”

Lisbeth Leon writes.

Lisbeth Leon writes.

In one of the earliest studies of what’s call reflective writing, psychologist James Pennebaker found that undergraduates who wrote about trauma reported more positive moods and fewer illnesses.

In another study of people who lost jobs, Pennebaker found that those who wrote about their thoughts and feeling landed jobs at a significantly higher rate.

So Sample works individually with patients and family members and holds writing workshops so perhaps, they, too, might see some of those positive effects.

Sample met with Lisbeth Leon last year when the young woman was diagnosed with cancer.

Leon was 18 but her parents were not at her bedside.  They had been deported to Mexico when she was nine.

Lisbeth Leon's parents were deported when she was 9 years old.

Lisbeth Leon’s parents were deported when she was 9 years old.

Leon talked about the experience with Sample, who transcribed her words.

“That was one of my favorite things that I could tell her my story,” Leon says. “I could tell her how I felt. And she listened really good. I like to be asked for me to tell you what I feel.”

“Illness is a call to story,” says Sample, paraphrasing writer Arthur Frank.  “You are reconstructing a sense of who you are.”

“I feel like it (fighting cancer) made me believe more in myself, like made me stronger,” Leon says.  “Like there’s always there’s always going to be somewhere something that’s going to stop you and you just have to keep going no matter what.  Even if you’re alone.”

“Almost every day I woke up I always said to myself that everything’s gonna be okay and I was going to get through it even if I was alone.”

After surgery, Leon temporarily lost the use of her voice and, in her sessions with Sample, talked about learning to speak again.

Sample sees metaphor in the story.

“I think that through some of the writing,” Sample says, “she was able to regain her voice. It’s given voice to a new self, a new person that she really is.”

Lisbeth Leon in the hospital. Lisbeth Leon and Susan Sample Lisbeth Leon writes. Lisbeth Leon's parents were deported when she was 9 years old.

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Cancer Patient Finds Healing Through Power Of Words