Education Session Emphasizes Importance of Storytelling

Education Session Emphasizes Importance of Storytelling

Dr. Jane Lowe Meisel
Dr. Lidia Schapira
Dr. Ranjana Srivastava
In the Education Session “Narrative as a Source of Personal Reflection and a Means of Social Change” on June 5,* three presenters will highlight why writing (or reading) about personal experiences can not only be a cathartic experience, but also a way to connect one oncologist to another.

“We connect with people by reading about their experiences,” Session Chair Jane Lowe Meisel, MD, of Winship Cancer Institute, said. “The very real issue of oncology burnout means we have to figure out how to sustain ourselves emotionally. We’re indebted to ASCO for continuing to pay attention to this important aspect of our professional lives.”

Oncologists often don’t discuss how one nurtures that inner sense of completion and allegiance with colleagues, said fellow presenter Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO, of Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Schapira is also the Editor-in-Chief of Cancer.Net, ASCO’s patient information website.

“One of the first things most of my colleagues look at is the ‘Art of Oncology’ section in the Journal of Clinical Oncology,” Dr. Schapira said. “I’ll be discussing how to use text as a way of reflecting, as a way of feeling connected to others.”

The all-too-real stresses of practice are everywhere, she added.

“If we don’t do something to address some of these complex emotions and the complex ethical dilemmas that we face every day, we are much more likely to burn out, and we are much more likely to be inefficient,” she said.

Reading and Writing

In her portion of the presentation, Ranjana Srivastava, FRACP, of Monash Medical Centre, in Australia, wants to inspire people to write. Most of her colleagues lament that while they used to be avid readers and writers, the demands of clinic life leave many wondering how to fit it all in.

Dr. Srivastava illustrates these tensions by using her own example.

Apart from practicing oncology, she is a regular columnist for The Guardian and an award-winning author. Wanting attendees to learn from her experiences, she said, “we don’t always have to tell our narrative to the world. Writing is about finding a space for reflection. That will directly contribute to better patient care.”

Conferences like the ASCO Annual Meeting provide an extraordinary amount of academic know-how, “but many of us also yearn for some balance,” Dr. Srivastava said. “Sessions like ours are vital in rounding us out as individuals.”

Journaling can be a cathartic process for individual practitioners to better understand their own feelings about a particular situation and may be able to alleviate burnout.

“One of the hardest things about our jobs is that we have to be empathetic, but we also have to be able to go into the next clinic room, to face the next day,” Dr. Meisel said. “We have to not only be able to find a well of strength within ourselves that allows us to dwell appropriately on the hard times, but also to be able to move on.”

One piece of advice Dr. Meisel will always remember from an older colleague is, “in order to be able to do the work that you do, you have to be able to feel the patient’s grief, their frustration, their losses—but you have to find ways to move forward so that you can help the next patient, and remain true to yourself.”

Dr. Meisel has found that reflecting about these experiences in writing helps a great deal toward accomplishing this goal.

Publish or Perish?

Published narratives can connect colleagues, but publication is not always necessary.

Writing—or reading—just helps everyone feel connected to others who do similar work, Dr. Schapira said. Oncologists simply need to connect with other oncologists.

“Most of the work we do is quite isolating,” Dr. Schapira said. “Our session will pay dividends to those who attend. We want to encourage those who are mentors or fellows to use the tips we’ll provide to start conversations with their own colleagues.”

Dr. Srivastava agrees, and said writing (even if it’s only 10 minutes a day) has helped her become more in tune with her patients.

“When we see patients, we don't have time to stop and think and process the complete picture,” she said. “We make decisions because our patients’ lives depend on those decisions,” but feeling the weight of those decisions, whether there might have been another approach, how the patient felt, and indeed, how other colleagues felt—all this can be very difficult in a tight clinic.

“By connecting with others’ reflections, we can become better doctors, understand ourselves better, and build more of an emotional reserve to keep doing the work that we’re doing,” Dr. Schapira said. “We can’t let talented people be continually burdened by grief. We need to help them find constructive outlets. This session is that sort of intellectual exercise.”•

—Michelle Dalton, ELS

*Program information updated as of May 15. For confirmed session time and location information, please refer to the ASCO iPlanner on the Attendee Resource Center.