It can be difficult for some children and adolescents with cancer and other serious illnesses, as well as their family members, to put their experience into words and talk about what matters most to them with each other and their healthcare providers. An approach called “Narrative Medicine” — offered through the Division’s Center for Comprehensive Wellness and in association with the Columbia Program in Narrative Medicine — can make starting these conversations a little easier.

The program brings patients, family members, and/or staff members together in groups of two to eight people around a piece of literature, like a poem or short story, chosen by the group’s facilitator or by one of the group members. They read it out loud, think and talk about it, and then take time to write about it. Along the way, thoughts and feelings are expressed in creative and often surprising ways.

“Narrative Medicine can improve communication among all parties involved in the care of a sick child, and we know that good communication is vital to good care,” explains Chris Adrian, MD — who is not only a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, but also an award-winning fiction writer and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. “But it’s also a way for us to address the psychological and spiritual health of sick children and everyone involved in their care. It’s a way to ask about how people are feeling that invites a complex response.” For example, one group was asked to read a Shel Silverstein poem called “Magic,” and then asked to write about a time when they had to make their own magic. “As in the poem,” adds Dr. Adrian, “for everyone who participated, making magic in the context of a child’s illness was about a lot more than fairies and leprechauns.”

“Narrative Medicine is another component of the care we provide that addresses the Total Child — body, mind, and spirit,” says Dr. Adrian.