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Why Share Your Childhood Cancer Story

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Woman writing in journal

Young people appreciate having a chance to express themselves. Writing is one way they can do so.

Young people have unique experiences with cancer. Sharing their stories may help improve their well-being.

As an oncologist, researcher, and writer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I have been studying how writing affects young cancer patients. I work with teens and young adults to help guide them in writing about their experiences and developing their personal stories.

Few studies have looked at how writing might affect young people who have cancer. Over the past year, my team and I have interviewed patients after their storytelling experiences to understand the impact of writing.

It has been exciting to learn that many young people with cancer want to tell their stories. Many have even expressed an interest in sharing their stories with other patients and with broader communities.

Why storytelling matters

Humans are storytelling creatures. Stories are one way that we express ourselves. Listening to the stories we tell one another is how we grow to understand each other better.

Storytelling is how we communicate. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and experiences can be difficult, but it can also be therapeutic. We connect through stories.

There are many ways for teens and young adults to express themselves and share their stories. Writing is just one of them!

Teens and young adults deserve to have the chance to share their stories. They can make meaning out of their personal experiences and process the uncertain and difficult times that can come with having cancer.

Trisha K. Paul, MD, Hematology-oncology fellow

How to make space for your teen or young adult to write their story

There are many ways to write. Some people like to write on blank or lined paper with a pen or pencil. Some people prefer to type on a laptop. Many people find writing on a phone app an easy way to write on the go. There is no right or wrong way to write.

Here are a few tips to help a teen or young adult tell their story:

  • Ask if it’s a good time: Respecting whether someone feels ready to write or tell their story is important. Asking your teen or young adult questions about their experiences with cancer can be one way to invite them to share their story.
  • Suggest ways you can help: Everyone needs different levels of support to tell their stories. Young people who have physical disabilities that make it hard to write may appreciate having a loved one offer to put words down on paper for them. Others may need a listening ear or access to supplies like a pen and paper.
  • Follow the writer’s lead: You might suggest possible topics or writing prompts, but every young person should decide what they do and do not want to write about. It is important for them to feel comfortable writing about topics that they feel drawn to. No topic or prompt should be required.
  • Be flexible: Writing about cancer can be an emotional and difficult task. Encourage them to take breaks as needed and to write in places where they feel most comfortable. Remember to follow their lead.
  • Review the story together: Ask your teen or young adult whether there are any changes they would like to make to their story. Are there details they would like to add to make it easier for another person to imagine what they experienced? Are there other experiences that come to mind that they would like to expand on? Revision is an important part of the writing process. It ensures a young person is satisfied with what they have created.

Teens and young adults deserve to have the chance to share their stories. They can make meaning out of their personal experiences and process the uncertain and difficult times that can come with having cancer.

The more we make space for young people to share their experiences with cancer, the more we all can learn from them.

Teenage and Young Adult Cancer Awareness Month

April is Teenage and Young Adult Cancer Awareness Month. Visit the Together by St. Jude™ Teens&20s section to learn more about cancer in adolescents and young adults.