New study finds storytelling can reduce depression for cancer patients

A new study from UW-Madison has found storytelling can reduce depression and worry for cancer patients.

The Journal of Palliative Medicine recently published a study from lead author Meg Wise, an associate research scientist at UW-Madison’s School of Pharmacy whose work is funded by the National Cancer Institute.

She and her colleagues found that when cancer patients are able to take part in a specially designed storytelling interview process, they experience greater peace and reduction in depression than patients who don’t get that chance.

Wise’s work began 15 years ago, when as a UW-Madison researcher she interviewed cancer patients nearing the end of their lives to ask how they were dealing with their diagnosis. Many asked her for a transcript of the interview, as they hadn’t discussed these issues with loved ones.

“I would think, wait a minute,” Wise says. “You’ve had stage 4 lung cancer for eight months, and this is the first time you’ve talked about it?”

About 10 years ago, Wise and her colleagues developed miLivingStory, a program incorporating elements of dignity therapy, which is often performed for those nearing death.

This built upon the work of a Canadian psychiatrist, Harvey Chochinov, who developed methods of dignity therapy through clinician-led, bedside interviews of hospice patients. From those interviews, he would create a legacy document that patients could share with friends and family.

“Some people say, ‘You know, in some ways, my life is better since I was diagnosed. Family is more important. I don’t sweat the small stuff,'” Wise said. “I got interested in that piece of resilience. What’s the silver lining in this?”

To explore the impact of miLivingStory, study authors conducted an experiment with more than 80 individuals diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 cancer. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one was given access to online tools for cancer patients like planning tools, support groups and literature from national cancer groups; the other group got access to miLivingStory, which also included the online resources.

Members of the miLivingStory group got two phone calls with Wise — one to get to know one another, and another to conduct the storytelling interview. Some common topics covered in those conversations include accomplishments or major hurdles overcome; the effects cancer has had on them and their family; and how they’d want to be remembered in 20 or 30 years.

Using the transcript of the interview, researchers created a document for the patient to use and share.

“What most people wanted to be remembered for was how they treated others,” says Wise. “They told us about adventures and very personal moments and triumphs. They addressed a lot of it to their families.”

Using a standard survey for measuring the well being of terminal patients, researchers determined that miLivingStory participants felt more at peace four months after the storytelling experience, and also felt less depressed than the individuals who didn’t have access to miLivingStory.

“The control group was really declining, and that’s what you’d imagine. You’re dying of cancer. You’re feeling worse, getting more scared,” Wise says. “But for the storytelling group, not only do you have increased peace, but you have some protective effect against that decline in meaning and mood.”