Skip to content

Archive for

The Power of Your Words

(Reposted from the Cancer Support Community Blog)

This week’s guest blogger is Susan Meyn, LPC, a support group facilitator for the Cancer Support Community’s online support groups. For more information on receiving online cancer support, click here.

Sue-2012“Simple”; “available”; “inexpensive”; “helpful”—these descriptors tell us a lot about why expressive writing has gained so much attention in recent years. It’s comforting for someone facing a difficult medical diagnosis to have tools available to help modulate the wide variety of emotions that come with it. One of the tools that can help is writing—specifically “expressive writing”. Research over the last 30 years supports the health benefits of writing about emotions. Of course, people have actually been writing about their personal experiences for thousands of years. Maybe they all knew something that our researchers now know with more certainty.

A little historical perspective: Journals and diaries have recorded personal life experiences for centuries. But, using writing as a therapeutic tool has a shorter life span—roughly over the last half century. Ira Profoff, PhD created the “Intensive Journal” in the 1960s. His method is aimed at personal development, and provides a way to deepen your relationship with yourself. His workshops continue to this day.

Another psychologist and researcher, James Pennebaker, made a surprising discovery in the 1980’s when he researched the benefits of talking about difficult life situations and how this made a difference in a person’s wellbeing. In his experiment he asked the participants to write for 15 minutes a day for 4 days in a row. The participants were broken into two groups—one group writing about a traumatic event, and the other group writing about something superficial. Regarding that first experiment, Pennebacker said, “To my surprise, those who wrote about their traumas needed less medical attention in the following months than they had previously, and many said the writing changed their lives. Ever since then I’ve been devoted to understanding the mysteries of emotional writing.” (from Preface of “Writing to Heal). His book, Opening Up details much of his early research, and another book, Writing to Heal provides step-by-step guidelines on how to do this kind of writing.

Pennebaker uses the terms “expressive writing” and “emotional writing” interchangeably. The emphasis is on using writing to express the emotions that go on when encountering difficult life events at a deeper level than ordinary discourse. It’s important to write for yourself, and possibly not even share what you wrote with others.

Now, more than 30 years after that initial study, there is continued interest in how writing can be used to heal. The Writing Cure is a book devoted to illuminating a wide range of studies on expressive writing. In cancer related studies, some have found that participants who practiced expressive writing had fewer physical symptoms and medical appointments at a three-month follow-up. Some studies show improved sleep after participating in the writing exercises. The studies continue.

Want to try your hand at expressive writing? Check out these simple guidelines to by clicking here.

The Cancer Support Community offers support groups that meet online in a chat room. While not the same as journal writing, it’s still an opportunity for participants to express their feelings as they talk to other cancer patients or caregivers in their groups. Our groups are professionally facilitated, helping to encourage participants to look deeper into their own feelings as they talk to others facing similar challenges. These groups, too, provide another kind of “expressive writing”.

I hope you’ll consider using this simple, available, inexpensive, and helpful tool for yourself.


Survivor Story: Sharon Kaye

Sharon displays her contribution to the Cups of Courage breast cancer awareness exhibit

Sharon displays her contribution to the Cups of Courage breast cancer awareness exhibit

“Having cancer opened another set of eyes that I didn’t have before.” That is how Sharon Kaye describes her experience surviving breast cancer. It’s an experience that includes her original diagnosis in 2011, followed by chemotherapy that left her virtually bed-ridden for three months, then a double mastectomy, radiation, and a yearlong process of reconstructive surgery.

But in addition to the grueling medical treatments and surgeries, there is another aspect of cancer survival that Sharon describes as “a cleansing.” By participating in programs at the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara (CscVvsb), Sharon found a group of people she could share the experience with – people who knew what it was like and how to talk about it in a real way. She found a place where she could open up and find renewal, honesty, and understanding.

Since her first visit to CscVvsb, Sharon has participated in a weekly support group, watercolor classes, knitting, meditation, yoga, educational seminars, and the annual holiday party and survivors picnic. In August she helped decorate bras for the Cups of Courage breast cancer awareness exhibit that will be on display at the Paint the Town Pink fundraiser at The Oaks Shopping Center on October 7. In September Sharon’s paintings from the watercolor class were displayed at the “Art of Survival” exhibit at the ABRA Art Gallery in Westlake Village.


Sharon and a friend at the 2013 Cancer Survivors Picnic

“The Cancer Support Community has made me feel like part of a family,” says Sharon, who lives in Newbury Park and until her diagnosis worked as a hairstylist. “Having cancer has made me into a totally different person – a better person. When I first got the diagnosis I thought it was the end, but it was just the beginning. It helped enrich me. I just feel like a renewed person.”

Sharon’s message to anyone dealing with cancer treatment or recovery is to give the programs at CscVvsb a chance. “Reach beyond your fear and just chance it and give it a try,” says Sharon. “We need you just as much as you need us and we love to help. It’s worth it for the emotional cleansing and to be around people that really embrace you. It’s a powerful thing.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Bob Ferber

When you have cancer, the Cancer Support Community is your lifeline to beating the disease. The doctors keep you surviving, but the Cancer Support Community makes survival worthwhile. ~Bob Ferber


Bob FerberWhen Bob Ferber, a recently retired animal rights prosecutor with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Animal Protection Unit, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 1999, he thought it was the worst day of his life.

“There’s this overwhelming smothering feeling of loneliness when you’re diagnosed with cancer,” Bob says. “I felt like the only person cursed with this disease, like I drew the short straw. I would be on the freeway and looking around and assuming no one else had cancer because they all looked so happy.”

Though Bob believed support groups had merit, he was reluctant to visit the Cancer Support Community because he did not believe anyone else would understand what he was going through. When he arrived for the first meeting, however, he was surprised to realize he was not alone in his fight.

“Although the first meeting had its depressing and scary parts, it was an inspiration,” he says. “There were people at different levels struggling with this life-threatening illness. I realized there was a whole world of people fighting cancer, all at different stages, and the Cancer Support Community uniquely brings those people together. After that meeting, I slept well for the first time in days.”

Bob’s support group became a second family that enlarged his support system of family, friends and neighbors. As a group, they helped each other get to treatments and found the strength to laugh together when they lost their hair. Throughout the process, Ferber considered the Cancer Support Community his home away from home, and sometimes his primary home.

After declining a life-saving bone marrow transplant because it would keep him away from his entourage of rescued pets indefinitely, Bob was accepted into the last opening in the nation for a UCLA clinical trial. Even though the co-inventors explained that the drug would not be life-saving and that he would die if he did not do the transplant Bob refused to give up his animals and stayed on the new drug. To everyone’s surprise, the experimental drug, later named Gleevec, did work on Bob and was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001. Thanks to Gleevec, he has had no evidence of cancer for 14 years! Bob returned to work as the first full-time animal cruelty prosecutor in the country.

Bob and his rescued pet menagerie now visit the Cancer Support Community’s Kid’s Circle to help kids who have a parent or grandparent with cancer. He talks about how animals are often treated differently or seen as worthless because they are sick or injured, and how animals understand grief.

“We talk about how animals grieve when they lose a friend, and about how they know when one of their friends is sick,” Bob says. “The kids can relate to that.” The kids (and their parents) learn that just as Bob finds it rewarding to help needy animals, kids can find hope and inspiration by having a role in their parents’ cancer journey.

Bob has also been doing orientations for new participants at the Cancer Support Community for the past ten years, finding it both inspiring and rewarding. Bob was recently honored by the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center with their annual “Hope and Inspiration” award and was the keynote speaker at their donor recognition dinner.

“If I die tomorrow, I will have lived a much better life than if I had stayed around another 30 years and never gotten sick,” Bob says. “This experience with cancer has opened up a new life for me, a life filled with one miracle after another.”

Bob recently remarked that he sees his volunteering as, in some ways, very selfish. He is continually moved by the attitudes of the new members. They give him hope and inspiration as he has done for many others.

Managing Stress and Anxiety: A few concepts and tips to consider

Thanks to Guest Blogger Jody Tompkins, MA, LMFT for providing these tips!

As you move through the cancer journey, or support a friend or loved one in the process, it is natural and expected that you will experience stress and anxiety, as well as many other emotions. Identifying some key strategies can help you feel like you have a choice in how to proceed.

Most of us have to be a bit “out of balance” during a transition or stressful time, as we often are adding the time and emotional focus needed onto an already full schedule, and pre-existing plans or commitments. With this as a given, how do we accomplish some sense of purpose and control, and manage our time as well?

Here are a few key concepts that are quite beneficial and powerful to address.

  1. listsImportant vs. urgent: Make sure you are looking at the tasks you want to complete, and identifying the priority of importance, as well as which are urgent. The distinction between the two can make a huge difference in a successful plan.
  2. Schedule: WRITE down what you want to achieve, each day, and each week. And make sure to schedule not only your work time, but also time for exercise, good nutrition, and some form of rejuvenation or rest. These are all part of the recipe, and require a plan so that your time and energy can be balanced.
  3. Needs and wants: What are some of your bottom line needs and wants during this time? Give yourself some time to consider financial, family, intellectual, emotional, physical, social and spiritual needs, to name a few. The more you honor these different parts of you, and integrate your time, the more successful you will be.
  4. Awareness: Stay connected to yourself. Pay attention to and accept how your body and your mind are responding to your plan, and adjust accordingly.

When Anxiety Shows Up…

sun rising meditationAnxiety will often surface during this process. It is stated in many studies that a certain degree of anxiety is good: it will sharpen your senses and make you more alert.

Focus on identifying the negative thoughts and messages that people so often give themselves, and replace them with strategies to manage anxiety when it surfaces. Practicing strategies regularly can make the difference when the anxiety shows up.

Here are some ideas/tips to assist you:

  1. Notice your thoughts, feelings and behavior, without judgment
  2. Honor them as real and valid, and yourself as important
  3. Breathe – focus on the exhale, then the inhale
  4. Focus on the present – what is happening NOW, what can I act on NOW
  5. Choose a new thought, feeling or behavior, for this moment
  6. One more deep breath


jodytompkinsJody Tompkins, MA, LMFT is the Vice President of Programs at Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/ Santa Barbara (CSCVVSB). Jody has more than 20 years of experience as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Her specialties include Family Systems, Anger Management, Anxiety and Depression, Couples Therapy, Grief Work, Art and Play Therapy for Children. Jody received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from California State University, Northridge, and a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

As VP of Programs for CSCVVSB, Jody oversees a comprehensive slate of programs to address the psychosocial needs of cancer survivors and their families. This year, more than 3,000 adults, children, and teens will benefit from CSCVVSB’s free programs, which include professionally-facilitated support groups, expert-led seminars, mind/body courses, expressive arts groups, and an award-winning Latino outreach program. Jody supervises a clinical staff of 15 licensed psychotherapists with over 300 years combined experience working in the field of psychosocial support and cancer related issues. CSCVVSB has been a vital cancer support resource in the community for 22 years so that no one faces cancer alone.

Caregiver Profile: Silvana Zucca

In honor of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Silvana to share her family’s story – how they got through her son’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, and how they all found hope with the help of local resources like the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara.

LongFamilyMadison was just ten years old when his doctor gave him and his family the incomprehensible news: the back pain that had initially brought him to the doctor was caused by Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer of lymph tissue. At an age when most boys are focused on sports, video games, and hanging out with friends, Madison was dealing with some very serious issues – starting with cancer treatment and recovery.

Under the care of Dr. Francisco Bracho, Madison started treatment in Ventura. Once the medical component was under control, Madison’s mother, Silvana, began to seek emotional support for the family. Her friend referred her to the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara, which happened to be right down the street from where they live in Thousand Oaks. “I knew I needed to talk to someone. I just walked in and said ‘I need help,’ and they set me up with individual counseling sessions,” says Silvana. Madison and his brother Giovanni, who was eight years old at the time, also participated in programs at CscVvsb; Madison had individual sessions with therapist Kayo Matsumoto, MFTI, and Giovanni attended Kids Circle – a support group for children who have a family member with cancer.

“I think talking to Kayo really helped Madison release some steam,” recalls Silvana. “He is a real thinker. He’ll ponder things for a long time. He could talk to me but then I was taking what I had plus taking what he had, and I could only take so much. It helped him to be able to talk to someone other than me.”

MadisonWhen a recurrence of the cancer sent Madison back into treatment and into the hospital for a bone marrow transplant, Silvana saw just how much the counseling had been helping him. “During that time we had a hard time getting together with Kayo, and he wasn’t talking to anyone regularly. One day he was extra quiet, and then he just exploded – he was a mess. I knew it was because he hadn’t been talking to Kayo about what was going on.”

Going to Kids Circle also helped Giovanni as he dealt with having a sibling with cancer. “Kids Circle was perfect for Giovanni because he didn’t want to sit down and talk about his feelings but talking about things in a fun way is different,” says Silvana.

Childhood cancer takes an immense toll on parents. Silvana found emotional support through individual counseling with a licensed therapist at CscVvsb. When VP of Programs Jody Tompkins, MA, LMFT formed a group for parents of childhood cancer survivors, Silvana was happy to participate. “Right now I’m in ‘get back to life as it used to be’ mode, and kind of pushing away all my cancer thoughts because I’ve had cancer on my brain for two years without a break,” says Silvana. “I know that’s not one hundred percent healthy all the time, and it’s good to be able to check in with the group and think about what’s happened and how we’re dealing with it. I would love to say it’s all behind me now. But I know it’s not – and I need to continue to discuss it with other parents who are going through the same thing.”

The family also found a group they could all attend at the Ventura County Medical Center – a monthly dinner with fun activities for children and a chance for Silvana and her husband Matt to meet other parents of childhood cancer survivors. “I really wanted Madison to be able to talk to other kids going through this,” says Silvana. “At first we were totally isolated and kids at his school didn’t know what to say. It was very important for him to be with other kids that really do know how he feels.” The free program is a collaboration between CscVvsb, Landon Pediatric Foundation, Ventura County Medical Center’s Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, St. John’s Cancer Center and The Teddy Bear Foundation.

Three years after his diagnosis, Madison is out of treatment and just started eighth grade. He loves being active, climbing trees, and playing basketball. Through a scholarship provided by another local organization called Cancer Fit, Madison has found a favorite new hobby: gymnastics.

We would like to thank Silvana, Matt, Madison and Giovanni for sharing their story!

To learn more about the free programs provided by the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara, please call 805.379.4777 or visit