Breast cancer healing through writing

ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- Poet Charlotte Matthews' life changed forever 12 years ago, when she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, a life-threatening diagnosis that required aggressive treatment.

"I had a total radical mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation," Matthews said.

She was given a slim chance of survival and faced unexpected side effects including memory impairment and early menopause, which ended her plans to have a third child.

Through it all, she wrote poetry to cope with the trauma.

"I even wrote sometimes in the chemo lab," she said. And her work became a published volume of poems, "Whistle What Can't Be Said."

That book detailing her experience with breast cancer is now the springboard for a new multimedia project called Whistle Words, a partnership between Matthews and local documentary filmmaker Betsy Cox. The goal: helping other women diagnosed with breast cancer use writing to heal.

Matthews and Cox have launched a website and Facebook page, and are in talks with cancer centers across the country to offer free online and live writing workshops.

"So much of cancer, you are in the passive role," said Matthews. "You're diagnosed, you undergo treatment, things happen to you... Writing is empowering."

Cox said she was intrigued when she first spoke with Matthews, and she quickly saw the potential for a documentary film that's now also in the works.

"What a beautiful story if you had a chorus of women from all walks of life, talking about the aspects of breast cancer that nobody ever talks about," said Cox.

With participants' permission, they plan to create an anthology of writing in addition to the documentary film.

Both women agree that writing is a powerful tool for those suffering from serious illness.

"I think the elderly and the ill are often marginalized and pigeonholed," said Matthews. "Writing and writing workshops is a way to bring the humanity back to those on the periphery who are somehow labeled."

For more information on Whistle Words, see the Related Links box.

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