Center News Magazine: Memorial Sloan Kettering Program Cultivates the Healing Power of the Pen

Friday, July 1, 2011
Pictured: Liya Khenkin & Sherry Suib Cohen Memorial Sloan Kettering patient Liya Khenkin (left) received guidance on her writing project from Visible Ink coach Sherry Suib Cohen.

Patients battling cancer can feel a loss of identity and self-possession as the disease and its treatments turn their worlds upside down. Memorial Sloan Kettering's Visible Ink writing program helps participants restore a sense of stability to their lives through the creative expression of their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears.

Founded by Judith Kelman, a successful author of 17 novels, Visible Ink offers patients the opportunity to work individually with a writing professional on a project of their choice. The topic need not be disease related, and the format can range from a personal essay or letter to a novel in progress, poem, or screenplay.

Patients have to surrender a lot of personal control to their doctors during their illness,” Ms. Kelman says. “We give them an opportunity to be in charge. We tell them: 'This is your story. We'll help you tell it any way you want.'

Ms. Kelman piloted Visible Ink within Memorial Sloan Kettering's Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service in 2008, but the program has since expanded to include the Center's entire patient population. To date, more than 400 patients have participated in Visible Ink, producing more than 10,000 pages of written work. Some of the pieces are published annually in an anthology compiled by the program

As Visible Ink's Team Leader, Ms. Kelman matches interested patients with one of the 35 seasoned writers or editors who volunteer as coaches. Patient and coach then meet or communicate online or by phone to develop the writing project.

Sherry Suib Cohen, a longtime friend of Ms. Kelman and full-time nonfiction writer, has coached more than 15 Visible Ink participants since the program began. She says it is thrilling to watch patients become engaged and empowered rather than resigned as a result of their diagnosis. She emphasizes that while coaches offer suggestions and guidance, they also challenge participants to reach their creative potential.

We're happy to work with anyone with the urge to write, no matter their level of expertise,” Ms. Cohen says. “While most participants are a bit out of practice, there's no question that some of them can write circles around me. And I feel I gain more from the collaboration than they do. I find the experience to be remarkable.

After Liya Khenkin was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in 2009, at the age of 30, she turned to Visible Ink and was paired with Ms. Cohen. When Ms. Khenkin showed Ms. Cohen her irreverent musings on funerals — especially her dislike of many common practices — she received enthusiastic support. The resulting piece, “Love, Loss, and What I Won't Wear to My Funeral,” lays out Ms. Khenkin's unconventional rules for her own memorial service and is published in the 2011 anthology.

I was apprehensive because I had never published anything so personal that I knew family and friends would read,” Ms. Khenkin says. “Sherry made me realize that while our experiences, such as cancer, do not define us, they become part of who we are and give us better insight into ourselves. She encouraged me to trust my voice and gave me confidence to say what I feel and not be afraid of what people might think.

For patients, the sense of achievement gained from conceiving and completing a written project can help them move forward after treatment. Participation in Visible Ink also allows some patients to create a legacy in situations where time may be running short. “It's extraordinary to be able to leave something for family and friends, or reach down through generations to grandchildren you may never know,” Ms. Cohen says.

Each spring, Visible Ink presents a staged reading of select participants' work. The event is directed by Greg Kachejian, who serves as Visible Ink's Administrator and Artistic Director and runs Memorial Sloan Kettering's patient library. On April 4, a packed house in Memorial Sloan Kettering's Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium watched professional stage and screen actors give voice to patient writings through performances that also included music, images, and dance.

The very act of writing a piece and finishing it brings an immense feeling of accomplishment,” Ms. Kelman says. “Now imagine the thrill of your words in the mouth of an eloquent actor or actress — it's very inspiring and enlightening.