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WRITE NOW: A Free Writing Group for Women Who Live With Cancer

by Dr. Natalie Mariano

Writing about something that upsets you can make you feel better. Whether it's an email to your best friend complaining about your boss, or a six-page entry into your journal about how frightened you are about having cancer, once the words are on the page, you feel a sense of relief just to have given words to your feelings. I've known this for years.

When I began my practice in primary care, I wrote about what it felt like to lose a patient. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, several years ago, I wrote about what it felt like to be a patient. Writing has helped me get through the most difficult times of my life.

Studies have proven that I'm not the only one writing has helped. When patients with cancer have been given a chance to write, they have an improved sense of well-being and a better attitude toward their disease. Hospitals and cancer treatment centers have begun to offer writing workshops to patients with cancer, and these programs have been overwhelmingly successful.

But to some people, writing is frightening. Not quite as bad as public speaking, but a close second.

When I've suggested to my patients that they might feel better if they wrote about their illness, their usual answer has been, "Oh no, I don't write." I've reminded them that they've been writing their whole lives. Shopping lists, thank you notes, notes to the teacher, Christmas letters, emails to friends.

What are all those pens doing in your kitchen drawer if they're not there for writing? "That's different," they say. "I can't write." I knew they were wrong, but never had the time to prove it to them.

I've recently retired from practice, and am on a mission to prove to women with cancer that they can write, and that writing will help them. WRITE NOW is a free writing group open to women with all stages and types of cancer.

Every woman who's experienced cancer has a story. The story may have happened years ago, but its memories still linger, like a book on the bottom row of a bookshelf. The story may be in progress, and its ending still unknown.

Each story is unique to its author. No one can write our stories for us, but if we can write those stories together, we will help ourselves, and help other women who are on the same journey.

Last spring I sat around a table with a group of brave women who had experienced cancer in one form or another. Most of the group said they had never written anything before, and weren't sure they could.

At our first meeting, I listened to them talk to one another, and had no doubts they could write. "It's simple," I told them. "If you can talk, you can write. Just put the words you would say onto a piece of paper, and instead of talking, you're writing."

All they needed was the time, space, and safety to put their stories on paper.

We didn't worry about grammar or sentence structure. We didn't care about spelling or vocabulary. Each of us had only pen and paper, or a laptop, and stories to tell.

We met for two hours each week. During each session, I provided simple prompts to get members writing. We took small steps, writing for just a few minutes on each prompt, and gradually writing longer pieces.

From the first day, pens raced across paper and keyboards clicked, as we wrote about things we'd experienced, things we dreamt about, things we loved, and things we hated.

At the beginning we wrote about simple, universal themes, like the deli line at the super market, our friends, and our pets. As we got more confident with our writing and with each other, we let our pens talk about pain and fear, chemotherapy and radiation.

As we took turns reading what we had written, we heard our own unique voices, and our own unique stories. We learned as much about ourselves as we did about one another.

We laughed far more than we cried and we ate some very good cookies. We came together with blank pages, and we left with chapters that no one else could have written. We came together as strangers, and left as friends and writers.

Our first writing group was a success. I look forward to many more. I plan to begin another group in September, and hope to continue throughout the year, as long as I can find a few brave women who are willing to sit with me and write. As I told our first class, if you can talk, you can write.

Writing is powerful and effective, yet it has no side effects. It costs nothing, doesn't cause weight gain, doesn't involve physical exercise, and can be done in the comfort of your own home. I could never write a better prescription for any woman.

If you've had cancer, or are going through treatment, write to me at You'll be glad you did. And please, tell your friends.

Dr. Natalie Mariano is a primary care internist who had a private practice in Falmouth for over twenty years. She worked at the VA Primary Care Clinic in Hyannis for the past ten years.

Although she loved practicing medicine, in recent years she has spent more time with her computer than with patients. She surprised herself by retiring from full-time practice this year, and is now hoping to begin writing a new chapter of her life.

Dr. Mariano has taken several writing workshops at Cotuit Center for the Arts (with the indefatigable Christine Rathbun Ernst), Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Truro Center for the Arts and has served on the board of the Cape Cod Writers Center.

She has been fortunate to have some of her short pieces published in several medical journals and anthologies, and in the Boston Globe Magazine. She has also enjoyed reading her stories on All Things Considered and on NPR's WCAI.


A free writing class for women whose lives have been touched by cancer

Each ten-week session meets for two hours. During each session, you'll be given simple prompts that will trigger
you to write. Your words don't have to be elaborate. They just have to be your own. Sharing your stories is optional.

Wednesday from 2-4pm
September 17 through November 19, 2014
At Mashpee Public Library

If this time doesn't work for you, please contact me and let me know what does.

NO PRIOR EXPERIENCE is necessary. If you can write a shopping list, you can join this group!
We don't worry about grammar or spelling. We don't criticize or judge.
If you can talk, you can write. It's that simple.

To sign up or ask questions, please contact or call 508-274-4268