Image Credit: Getty Images / Nevena Ristic
Young woman sitting under a tree reading stories that help her escape cancer trauma

How Storytelling Helped Me Through My Cancer Diagnosis

Reading time | 4 mins
Alice-May Purkiss explores the power of storytelling, and how stories helped with processing trauma after a cancer diagnosis.


I love stories. I have always loved stories, and I love words.

When I was a kid, I slept with books next to my pillows, the same way my friends would sleep next to their soft toys. I hoped that the stories in these books would seep through my skin through some kind of osmosis.

I drink up stories the way a marathon runner rehydrates after a long race. Stories provide me with comfort and solace. I have turned to them when I have been sad, and I have turned to them when I have been sick. I have turned to them when the world felt like it had been turned on its entire head. I read stories to escape the real world and stretch my mind and improve my imagination. I really, really love stories.

I’ve long believed that stories are what make us human but, over the past few years, I’ve come to think that stories and words can help us heal too.

Stories as a source of healing from trauma and illness 

It’s not just me that feels that way.

Albus Dumbledore, from the Harry Potter series, implied the same when he said:

Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007).

Many great thinkers have broadcast their praise for writing and storytelling. They believe that stories can help us navigate modern life.

Bill Gates has described a daily writing habit as a “tool for re-evaluation”. Richard Branson carries a “standard school notebook”, which he claims is one of his most essential possessions. Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and Frida Kahlo all kept journals.

Popular celebrities, such as Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have also talked about the benefits of writing regularly.

Science has backed these ideas too. Researcher James Pennebaker has done an enormous amount of work on the power of storytelling, concluding that it leads to better mental and physical health. He also suggests that storytelling is an excellent way to process trauma.

If we take our memories and form them into some sort of narrative arc, they’re easier to understand. 

Usually, memories present themselves as a tangled mess of events and emotions. They’re not easy to unpick at all! Yet, if we give our memories a linear structure, we’re able to see patterns. We’ll notice the similarities and differences in past and present situations and the feelings that are tied to them. 

Turning to storytelling after my cancer diagnosis

When I think back to the early days of my cancer treatment, I know this to be true. From the get-go, I decided to write a blog about my experience because I knew it would help me process what was going on. I knew writing about my experience would help me unpick some of the challenges I was facing.

Pennebaker’s research explains the science behind my decision to write about my cancer:

“Confronting a trauma through talking or writing about it and acknowledging the associated emotions is thought to reduce the physiological work of inhibition, gradually lowering the overall stress on the body. Such confrontation involves translating the event into words, enabling cognitive integration, and understanding of it, which further contribute to the reduction in physiological activity associated with inhibition and ruminations.”  (Pennebaker, J. W. & Beall, S. K, 1986) 

So, when we tell an emotional story, the act of telling - of putting our thoughts into a narrative form - can prevent us from ruminating on our trauma. 

Stories are powerful tools that connect us

Yet, writers aren't the only ones who benefit from stories. Just listening to or reading stories can also help. A story is a powerful tool that unifies and connects mankind. Stories can break down barriers, heal wounds and remind us we are not alone. When it comes to processing trauma, these things are crucial for survival.

There's been a shift in how we talk about our problems. Many of us used to think that difficulties should be "covered up" and shouldered alone.

Now, we have communities, like the cancer community I belong to, sharing their experiences on social media or via blogs. Like Matt Haig and Bryony Gordon, other writers have encouraged others to share their stories about mental health.

One thing is becoming more and more clear:

The power of words and storytelling are vital tools to help humans take care of themselves.

Everyone should tell their story

On a personal level, storytelling has helped me explore my own experiences. Sometimes, I need to find the words to describe my mastectomy or my post-cancer mental health struggle. That's not easy, but putting emotion and fact into written words has helped me understand both at a deeper level.

When I write about what I've been through, I need to make sure others will understand. That means every word needs careful consideration, and all of them hold power. You can't think of the words to tell a story without considering the meaning around them.

Words have healing power. Stories have healing power. Stories create connections, and we need those connections more than ever. So, if you have a story to tell, tell it.

You never know. Your story could be someone's anchor in the storm.

NPS-IE-NP-00299 July 2021