Issue 7 Stories

Unspeakable Expressions:

Cancer Patients Experience the Healing Power of Whistle Words

A family vacation photo bolstered Betsy Aronson’s resolve for facing her second hit with colon cancer. Taken last summer after Aronson had completed treatments for her first bout with cancer, the photo showed her in sneakers, wearing a loaded backpack and standing at the top of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. She saw the picture as an illustration of strength and determination—characteristics she wanted to recruit for her latest battle with cancer.

“That picture helped me see myself completely differently,” says Aronson, who was first diagnosed with colon cancer in June 2016 and found to have a metastatic tumor in the uterus in December 2017. “I looked at the picture and said: ‘This is who I want to be.’ I want to see myself as a fighter, someone who is going to be strong facing this journey, and will keep going.”

Although Aronson had looked at the vacation snapshot many times before, it was during an eight-week writing workshop called Whistle Words at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital that she took a closer, deeper look. As part of the workshop, she was completing a writing prompt given by facilitator Charlotte Matthews, who asked participants to bring in a photo of themselves and write about it for 10 minutes.

“When I wrote about that picture of myself at the Grand Canyon, I ended up making a decision,” Aronson says. “I’m not going to live my life as a catastrophe. I’m going to be present in who I am. My shoulders are back where they belong.”

The writing workshop helped Aronson move through her journey. “Whistle Words helped me in so many ways—and the writing wasn’t necessarily targeted to cancer,” she says. “The writing helps you move through your feelings and takes you to a different place where you don’t think as much about your situation. It helped me understand more about what I was going through.”

Healing Through Writing

Matthews experienced the healing potential of writing herself as she endured a battle against Stage 3 breast cancer 14 years ago, when she was 39 and the mother of two young children. Feeling powerless, she began journaling about her experiences with a radical double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation—all treatments she underwent at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re suddenly labeled as a cancer patient, and so much seems to be stripped away from you,” says Matthews. “As a patient receiving care and as a woman in that passive role, I felt disempowered. It’s obviously very traumatic and drastic and sudden, and it puts you off kilter. I think writing can help to restore balance, and I wanted to share that with other women.”

A Community of Survivors

Anyone who has faced a diagnosis of cancer and undergone treatment knows how challenging and disruptive it can all be. Receiving support, often from various sources, can help patients handle the stress and uncertainty. And sharing with others who are undergoing similar experiences can be very uplifting.

“When one is impacted by cancer, it can be isolating and confusing,” Matthews says. “When life is difficult or stressful, it can feel out of control and seem like time just speeds up. I think writing brings order and gives power and significance in a world that seems so rushed. Writing also can slow things down and allow you to examine what’s going on.”

Mitzi Ware, a workshop participant, found the experience to be “nourishing.” Diagnosed in 2012 with ductal carcinoma in situ, a noninvasive breast cancer, and later with an invasive breast cancer in 2016, she enjoyed the fact that the group spent very little time talking about cancer. Instead, it was a time to build a hopeful, healing community.

“The workshop made me feel happier because I was able to move beyond just healing by myself,” Ware says. “It was great to be with a group of people who had similar experiences with cancer, but you didn’t feel like you had to talk about it all the time.”

For many cancer patients, the end of treatment brings relief. But for Jocelyn Kelley, she felt disoriented when her chemo and radiation ended in June 2016. This was her second bout with breast cancer, but the first involving chemo. For nine months, the disruption of a Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis involved a rigorous schedule of surgery and treatments.

“During that time, I had a lot of support from the Sentara Martha Jefferson Cancer Center staff, as well as family, friends, neighbors and church community members,” says Kelley. “But when treatment ended and the framework of an imposed daily routine fell away, I felt a bit at sea. Not knowing how recovery from chemo and radiation would go, it was hard to articulate what I needed at this stage.”

When Kelley heard about the workshop, she jumped at the opportunity. She describes the experience as akin to “yoga for writers.”

“The workshop provided a centering process,” Kelley observes. “Just as the practice of yoga is a way to bring you to the here and now, the writing workshop did a similar thing using written expression. Whistle Words writing prompts often led to surprising insights and reflections. The workshop provided a fresh way to take stock of my life at this moment in time and help pave a way forward.”

For Matthews, the joy of witnessing these women flourish as a result of writing has been affirming.

“When you have cancer, you become part of a tribe: those who have cancer with you, and those who have been through it,” Matthews says. “You learn to speak a language that others don’t speak. I felt like I was among a sisterhood of those who have been through this difficult experience of figuring out how you are going to dwell in this new space in your life. Being with women who live in the same space has been very emotional, meaningful and powerful.”

Support Groups

The Sentara Martha Jefferson Phillips Cancer Center has a number of support groups for patients and their caregivers.

Groups are free and confidential. Unless otherwise noted, groups meet in the Phillips Cancer Center Conference Room on the third floor (the entrance floor).

For information or to determine which group is the right match for you, please call

Suzanne Hilton Smith at 434-654-8407 or

Coping with Cancer: Sisters Side by Side

Meets every other Monday, 4-5:15 p.m.

(July 16, July 30; Aug. 13, Aug. 27, etc.)

Join other women who are being treated for, or who have survived, any type of cancer to share common concerns.

Caregivers’ Coffee

July 25, Aug. 8, Aug. 22

Are you a caregiver or companion for someone who is living with a serious illness? Drop in for informal conversation and coffee and take a few minutes for self-care. Come as you are!

Taking Control and Calming the Chaos—Stress Management

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1-2 p.m.

(July 17 and 19 OR Aug. 14 and 16)

Both classes introduce techniques for controlling stress and anxiety. Preregistration is not required. Groups meet at Sentara Martha Jefferson Health and Wellness, 590 Peter Jefferson Parkway, Suite 200.

Advance Care Options

Mondays (check for dates and times)

Learn how to protect your healthcare choices through an advance directive, which indicates who should speak for you if you cannot speak for yourself, and also discusses your future medical care. Please call 434-654-8407 to register.

Future Options

We are able to add additional groups as needed. For example, if there is interest, we may be able to add a lung cancer group, a breast cancer support group for premenopausal women, or a colorectal cancer support group. If you are seeking support for coping with a particular concern, please contact Suzanne Hilton Smith at the number or email above.

Philanthropic support for the SentaraMartha Jefferson Cancer Center enhances the exceptional, compassionate care given to each patient. Whistle Words is one of the supportive programs offered to cancer patients and cancer survivors that is fully funded by generous donations from our community. For information on how you can support these essential programs, please visit, or call 434-654-8258. For information on support groups available at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, please contact Suzanne Hilton Smith at 434-654-8407 or

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