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Published on September 26, 2016

Writing groups provide connection for survivorsWriting groups provide connection for survivors

Cancer may be the reason people come to Dr. Natalie Mariano’s writing groups, but it is not the focus. The life experiences people bring are a rich source of inspiration which helps them work through many aspects of their life.

Dr. Mariano, a primary care physician, leads writing groups for cancer survivors at the Mashpee library as well as in Plymouth at the Beth Israel-Deaconess Hospital, and is about to start a new group at the Centerville Public Library. The new group will meet for six weeks at 10-11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, starting Sept. 28.

“What I try to do is help people realize that cancer is one chapter of their lives, but it’s not the whole book,” said Dr. Mariano, who works part-time for the Veterans Affairs (VA), and volunteers her time for the writing group. “There are a lot of shared issues that they’ve all gone through. Finding out you have it, telling your family, going through the treatments, what is it like to be a cancer patient – all of that.

In the short term, writing gives patients something else to think about besides their cancer, said Dr. Mariano. It gives them a chance to focus on the other things and other people in their lives.

In the long run, her goal is to get them writing.

“There have been a lot of studies that show that if you write while you’re going through a chronic illness, you do better. When I went through breast cancer years ago, I wrote about it pretty intensively and it really helped me.”

A lot of what her group members write about doesn’t have to do with the cancer, and is more about their families, the things they remember, good memories or bad memories, she said. This helps to put things in perspective.

“It’s not a support group or a therapy group. I try to keep the light side going and have it be a place that they look forward to coming because we’re going to laugh more than we cry,” she said.

A Common Experience

Valerie Messina and Sheila Mulcahy were part of Dr. Mariano’s first group and continue to attend the monthly group at the Mashpee Public Library. When Messina joined the group in September 2014, she had recently retired and moved to Mashpee from New Jersey. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998. She’s in remission but is still dealing with some side effects from her treatment.

“It’s been a great process, sitting with Dr. Nat and probing our past and getting it down on paper. It helps us keep our mind sharp,” she said.

“Cancer is a horrible disease. Being in her class and meeting other people who have been through similar circumstances and have a similar perspective has been a wonderful thing for me.”

The groups focus on very short writing exercises.

“At the first group, we might write about a trip to the grocery store,” said Dr. Mariano. “I might use prompts like the deli counter, the checkout aisle, canned vegetables – things that everybody can relate to. Everyone is going to have a response. We’ll write for one or two minutes – just a few sentences. People enjoy doing it and they enjoy hearing what other people have to say because it’s other people’s interpretations and other people’s memories.

Dr. Mariano had a primary care practice in Falmouth for 23 years and then worked full-time at the VA Primary Care clinic in Hyannis until two years ago, when she reduced her hours at the clinic to part-time.

Mulcahy, who lives in Marstons Mills, is a former oncology nurse for Cape Cod Healthcare. She’s undergoing treatment, including chemotherapy, for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and two other types of cancer.

“I like the idea that we all have the common experience of cancer,” she said. “Some of us are still living with it and some of us have survived. Some of us have complications from it. It creates a sense of intimacy, so we can share with others in the group without the fear of judgment.”

Dr. Mariano stressed that the groups are open to anyone and no writing experience is required.

“Anyone can write,” she said. “A lot of folks wouldn’t consider a writing group because they’re afraid of writing. I tell people that if you can write a grocery list, you can write.”

To register for the class or for more information, contact Dr. Mariano at or 508-540-2349.