Complementary cancer therapies help survivors heal

Carolyn O’Neal and Cora Schenberg first met at a WriterHouse class, and reconnected years later after receiving the same cancer diagnosis. The two hope to help cancer patients, survivors and their families find complementary healing through writing. Photo by Martyn Kyle Carolyn O’Neal and Cora Schenberg first met at a WriterHouse class, and reconnected years later after receiving the same cancer diagnosis. The two hope to help cancer patients, survivors and their families find complementary healing through writing. Photo by Martyn Kyle

It’s difficult to find a single person who hasn’t been touched by cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 1.6 million new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year alone. And while we know that surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are the most common treatments for cancer, few people know about complementary therapies that can help patients and survivors alleviate stress and pain while on their way to recovery.

Healing through writing

When Carolyn O’Neal and Cora Schenberg first met at an Open Mic Night hosted by WriterHouse a few years ago, they couldn’t have realized how many similarities they had in common: They were both award-winning writers, they both have one son–each named after a Biblical archangel—and they both had uterine cancer. Specifically stage I, grade 3 uterine cancer.

As fate would have it, they also shared the same oncologist, who reintroduced them two years later, after Schenberg told her doctor she wanted to teach a writing class for cancer survivors in Charlottesville. “It just seemed like such a wonderful match,” says Schenberg.

Schenberg mainly creates nonfiction, poetry and stage plays (and has had several pieces published in magazines and produced at Live Arts), while O’Neal has her own blog and writes fiction. Last year, O’Neal published her first novel, Kingsley, an ecological thriller partly inspired by her struggle with cancer.

“Cancer is like a supervillain,” says O’Neal. “You can fictionalize these horrors that you face. Kingsley allowed me to write about a lot of the scary stuff without it being me [at the center], and that was fun.”

Both women will be leading an eight-week Writing in Response to Cancer workshop at WriterHouse starting later this month. The class is open to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers, and O’Neal and Schenberg plan to shape the class based on the needs and goals of their students. Throughout the course, students will be free to experiment with a variety of writing styles and prompts and will also read work by cancer survivors.

But, above all, O’Neal and Schenberg want their class to be a safe space for healing. “We’ve both had [many] healing experiences through writing, and art and expression,” says O’Neal. “If we have somebody that doesn’t have a support system, perhaps the class can offer a little bit of that.”

Both these women know all too well how cancer can be the “embodiment of chaos,” as Schenberg describes it, which is why they turned to writing as a way to create order in the midst of their disease. It took half a year of abnormal bleeding, chronic pain and biopsies from six different doctors, all assuring her that she didn’t have cancer, before Schenberg finally received her diagnosis. From there, it was a rapid and draining procession of surgery, radiation and chemo until she entered remission.

As for O’Neal, although she was diagnosed quickly (and to add to their lengthy list of coincidences, she had the same surgery at the same hospital within the same month as Schenberg), her journey with cancer had its own tribulations, involving medical mistakes that endangered her health, painful post-surgery complications and traumatizing invasive inspections.

“When you create something, you do the opposite of chaos,” says Schenberg. “At the very least, you arrange words, you arrange a story in a sequence. …You have a certain amount of control over the way you create, the way you tell your story. And so it seems like an anti-cancer.”

Custom comfort

Sue Spencer invites me into the main space of her private oncology massage practice, Hands at Work. It’s a small room that feels simple and intimate. Light, soothing music plays in the background as she discusses one of the few decorations in the space, which sits atop a side table. “I have a piece of sculpture that my sister did. She’s passed away. [It’s] a hand holding a family, which I just really like.”

The massage table, draped with soft white blankets and towels, is the heart of the room. Spencer says it can be heated or not, depending on how her clients are feeling that day. “This is the space that is for them. It’s their time just to relax. And they know, from their first session with me, or if they’ve been seeing me for 15 years, that anything they need, as far as comfort, gets taken care of,” says Spencer.

Spencer has received years of training and certification to practice oncology massage, a customized massage session designed to meet the unique needs of someone in treatment for cancer or with a history of cancer treatment. As a complementary therapy, oncology massage can relieve the physical side effects of treatment as well as emotional distress. Spencer says the difference in her clients’ spirit before and after a massage can be like night and day.

Spencer left her 25-year career in medical administration to go to massage school after she spent a week in the hospital with her sister, who was pronounced terminal from a lifelong struggle with diabetes.

“The clincher for me was when she said, ‘Nobody touches us.’ And that broke my heart,” says Spencer.

For decades, it was believed, even among the medical community, that massaging cancer patients would have negative effects. To this day, oncology massage is not very well-known, Spencer says, even though the American Cancer Society considers it “one of the most supportive complementary therapies available.”

Eleven months after her sister died, Spencer’s father passed away from melanoma. And a few years later, her mom died from her third bout of breast cancer.

“It’s not going away, and I want to be there for people that want me there and feel that need,” Spencer says. “I have a wonderful, heartfelt feeling when I’m in the presence of somebody who has fought this battle, or has decided not to fight it, and I get to be with them in their transition.”

By doing this “soul-feeding” work, she feels that she is celebrating life in honor of her sister. She smiles, and gestures to the green-glazed sculpture of a family holding each other together across the room. “I’m just really grateful that I get to do this.”

Contact Sherina Ong at

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