Sharing the Clinical Relevance of Narrative at the UM Pediatrics Research Symposium

Instead of numerical values and statistics, my poster shared the words and phrases of children with cancer.  Amidst colorful posters with tables and graphs, my poster was adorned with drawings by pediatric oncology patients, such as cancer as a half-angel, half-devil being.

The 24th Annual Pediatric Research Symposium at the University of Michigan struck me as an interesting opportunity to share my narrative research with clinical pediatricians. I just began delving deeper into these narratives through a literary lens, and I enjoyed the challenge of reframing and furthering my analysis of these narratives for a medical audience. What does narrative illuminate about the living experience of childhood cancer? How do children conceptualize cancer and make sense of their illness experiences? And how can these narratives of pediatric oncology patients inform those who care for them?

Writing this abstract required more than inverting the active tense valued by the humanities to the passive tense valued in scientific writing. Designing this poster forced me to distill the numerous conversations and narratives that I have collected into a direct, concise argument. It was an incredibly helpful, albeit challenging, process.

From nearby poster presenters to practicing pediatric oncologists and more, it was interesting to discuss my research with a broad range of people and receive different feedback. One conversation in particular really resonated with me. A neighboring poster presenter asked me about my work, then confessed that she worked with pediatric oncology patients as a social worker for years. She said that it was a difficult and challenging position, one that ultimately surged her into depression because it was too much. To be able to work so intimately with these children, she said, “you need some kind of ‘distance.'”

This “distance” intrigues me. As we discussed this further, she explained that social workers preoccupy themselves primarily with the patients and families facing death, the ones struggling most with the interruptions of cancer. Physicians, on the other hand, have the chance to experience the broad range of paths that patients follow with cancer. The successful treatments, the ineffective drug regimens. This spectrum of outcomes helps give physicians perspective, but social workers by nature are honed in on the more despondent stories.

Is “distance” necessary for the emotional challenges of pediatric oncology? And if it is, what exactly does this imply about the impact of these childhood cancer narratives?  I wonder, how might these narratives complicate and possibly challenge this notion of ‘distance’?

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Filed under Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative, Miscellaneous Musings, Narrative Medicine Research

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