World Cancer Day: Stories from the day hospice
Today is World Cancer Day. This year’s campaign is about dispelling myths around cancer. Chrissie Giles, who ran a creative writing group in a hospice over the summer of 2012, reflects on her attempts to understand more about living with a terminal illness.
There are four myths in the sights of World Cancer Day this year. Namely: cancer is just a health issue; cancer is a disease of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries; cancer is a death sentence; and cancer is my fate.
Last summer I undertook a project in a hospice. I don’t think I’d ever been in a hospice until the bright morning I walked through the swishing automatic doors of Princess Alice Hospice, Esher. In my first few conversations there I learnt something of fundamental importance about the hospice movement: hospices are not just places where people go to die.
Hospices support people as in-patients, out-patients and as part of the community. They consider the patient in a holistic way, dealing with what the founder of the modern hospice movement Dame Cicely Saunders called total pain. This includes physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects. Carers are also looked after, both during a patient’s life and after their death.
The hospice staff and volunteers I met were receptive to the idea of a writing group and I began to attend every week over the summer. I ran a hour-long creative writing session in the day hospice, where patients come regularly to get help managing their symptoms, to socialise, to get support from the chaplaincy and social work teams, and to give their careers a break.
Every person I met in the day hospice was facing an illness that causes them disability and pain and that would shorten their life – these include cancer, motor neurone disease and chronic liver conditions. Every person had a different story – about their illness, of course, but also about their lives so far, their families, their careers, their dreams, thoughts and fears for the future.
I was only at the hospice for a few months, but I feel that I got to know some of the patients well. What struck me was the difference in perspective those I met had. Some people were still numb, reeling from their recent diagnosis. Others, having had more time to adjust, had reconciled themselves with their situation. Some were never going to be able to accept it.
Where people found themselves on this scale had no bearing on their generosity and involvement, though. The group members shared their time with me and, through the writing we did together, so much of themselves – not just as patients but as people. Their stories, full of sadness, humour, reminiscence, loss and hope, made it an honour to be a very small part of their Tuesday afternoons.
The short snapshots into the lives of those who attended day hospice inspired me to write a series of reflections called ‘Stories from the day hospice’. Interwoven with my stories are pieces of writing created by members of the day hospice. You can read the introductory essay and the stories on the Wellcome Collection blog (most recent post at the top). With colleagues I have also recorded audio versions of the stories (listen on Soundcloud).
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the hospice. I was scared that it would be a sad place, heavy and dark. Of course, there was sadness – patients feeling depressed, hopeless and desperate. Relatives and patients doing their best to find normality in a very abnormal situation. Dying patients being visited by their young children. A sense of premature loss.
Nothing can stop these painful moments from happening, but hospice, in its widest sense, offers comfort, expertise and compassion that make these often traumatic periods begin to seem almost ok. By facilitating a shift from something unimaginable and unmanageable to something that can, at least on some level, begin to be dealt with, hospices can change people’s lives, regardless of how long or short they might be.