The power of storytelling

Storytelling allows us to connect with people, loved ones and strangers alike, on our most human level. Drew Emery, Health Film and Documentary Maker

At the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre we care for people touched by cancer every day. Patients and carers often ask “What have others experienced and what has helped them?” They are asking to hear the stories of others.


Similarly, we find that many patients and family feel a sense of connection and care in being able to share their stories with others. LIV ON hopes to bring the same support to the community, by gathering the experiences of anyone touched by cancer from around the world to one central, digital, space.


In this article, Drew Emery, Health Film and Documentary Maker explains his belief as to why storytelling is such an important part of being human and how it can help people going through the challenge of cancer to feel connected and supported.


How storytelling contributes to wellness by Drew Emery, Health Film Maker

Drew Emery is a writer, filmmaker and storytelling evangelist. With an MFA in playwriting, Drew cut his teeth as a dramatist in Seattle until a series of oral history projects led him to discover his passion: the power of true stories. Drew produced and directed the award-winning marriage documentary “Inlaws & Outlaws”, and co-created “Still Life”, a featurette weaving together the stories of six ONJ Centre patients and their carers.

Drew Emery

Telling our story helps us to reclaim our story

The act of storytelling forces us to assemble a narrative to share with others.  Even when our lives have not been disrupted by traumas such as cancer, we often become disconnected from the thread of our own narrative.  Reconstructing that thread is key to reclaiming it, allowing us to take ownership of our lives, which can be especially beneficial when you feel a complete loss of control. Becoming a narrator puts us back in the driver’s seat of our own story.  Recognising that while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to, which is essential for people to maintain an active role in their own self-care.

Reclaiming our sense of identity

Similarly, just as storytelling allows us to reclaim our role as the lead character in our own lives, it helps reclaim our sense of identity, which is vital for wellness.  I heard a story when making a documentary in a Cancer Centre of how a patient felt that their friends and family now saw them as The Cancer instead of as the person with cancer.  Storytelling can correct our sense of our identities being overwhelmed and masked by circumstance.

Storytelling is more than communicative;  it’s connective

Because of the disruption in people’s lives and the changes that cancer can have on the body and routines, a sense of isolation is a real danger.  Storytelling allows us to connect with people, loved ones and strangers alike, on our most human level.  It cultivates empathy and understanding in spades, both vital to wellness.  With the ongoing stigma around cancer, this strikes me as especially important to address.  

Storytelling provides meaning

The act of creating a narrative puts the events of one’s life in a context and very often helps us understand those events and our role in them.  We all need meaning in our lives but nobody more so than that person having to face questions of mortality directly.  The claimed, or reclaimed, sense of meaning can be hugely beneficial to enduring the trials of cancer, and very beneficial post-cancer when one reasserts or realigns ones priorities for the remainder of their life.

Storytelling provides purpose

In a project I have recently undertaken filming patients with cancer, each of the participants independently volunteered that the primary impetus of submitting to be involved was the possibility of helping others.  But even in a less public format than on film, the act of storytelling is usually driven by some motive to engage, educate, entertain or, as may especially be the case for some people with cancer, to create a legacy.  Having a sense of purpose gives one a reason to go on and can free the mind from the overwhelming physical and psychological concerns for those going through treatment or in palliative care or observation.