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Writing Helps Lawson Live with Cancer

Charlotte, N.C., - October 15, 2012 – Susan Lawson feels she has a 'calling' to teach writing. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she learned that survivorship was limited to five-year statistics. "I asked myself why I would need five years to accomplish what I really felt passionate about doing today," says Lawson, an English instructor and academic advisor at Johnson C. Smith University. So she decided to intersect her passion for teaching writing and her experience as a cancer survivor to facilitate writing workshops for survivors and their loved ones. She does this locally as the facilitator of the Levine Cancer Institute Writing Community and at the Ovarian Cancer Retreat at Camp Mak-A-Dream in Gold Creek, Mo.

Lawson believes writing is therapeutic. "It's not only empowering to write a story, but to share the story with others, especially those who know what it means to live with cancer.” Lawson adds that survivors may or may not write about their cancer experiences. "We have other stories we want to capture too, such as family memories and other experiences, some comical, some endearing."

Lawson, who holds an M.F.A. in creative writing, encourages free writing which is a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness form of writing. Participants can also use graphic organizers, make lists or outlines, or use any writing device which works for the writer. Workshop members may write poetry or stories that stand on their own, or they can choose to link their work with a collection. "Either way, we are creating a legacy," says Lawson.

The Levine Cancer Institute Writing Community meets once a month and is open to the Institute's survivors and their loved ones. The group typically discusses a topic before writing. Lawson uses the topic as a springboard for a variety of prompts. "I toss out questions for us to ponder and, after a short discussion, we write, and then read our work to one another." For example, in June, the Writing Community wrote about wanderlust. "We talked about how we anticipate a vacation, and then look forward to getting home to sleep in our own bed," she said. In July, just as the world turned its attention to the Summer Olympics, the writing community pondered the nature of playing games, competition, and team spirit. In August, the group tackled the contagious nature of good cheer, a frame of mind or attitude typically associated with the holidays. "Workshop participants can write about anything they want. It's all good," says Lawson. Meg Turner, a cancer support counselor at Levine Cancer Institute, said of Lawson, “The writing community at Levine Cancer Institute adores Susan and looks forward to our monthly gathering. I can attest to the fact that they all say that it is Susan's calm, comforting and reassuring presence that gives them the confidence to find and discover their own inner writer.”

Lawson also facilitated writing workshops for the Ovarian Cancer Retreat held at Camp-Mak-A-Dream in Montana in May 2012. The retreat centered around the theme "Finding the Joy in Telling our Stories" and culminated in poetry readings, dramatic readings and small group performances which evoked howls of laughter and tears of resonating emotion.

Like many in her writing workshops, Lawson is undergoing treatment. However, she finds inspiration from other survivors. "I'm always amazed at how hard cancer survivors and their loved ones work to raise awareness and advocate for research. And it's an incredible privilege to hear their life stories." Beth Jones, camp director at the Children's Oncology Camp Foundation, Inc. described Lawson as someone who, “… Saw strength and beauty in everyone and most importantly helped everyone see it in themselves.”

In addition to gaining strength from the writing workshops, Lawson says she feels tremendous support from her colleagues at Johnson C. Smith University. "I'm grateful I teach where service learning is not just for students. The University as a whole is dedicated to service in the community." Johnson C. Smith University supports Lawson's advocacy on campus as well. The Academic Center for Excellence, where Lawson advises, created "Teal Tuesday," a day her department set aside in September, the month dedicated to gynecological cancer awareness. "In the past two years, we have provided educational materials and activities, hosted a speaker, and provided teal nail polish for our students' fingers and toes," she says. Teal is the designated color for ovarian and other gynecological cancers such as cervical and uterine cancer. "We want our students to be informed, and to listen to their bodies." Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of the gynecological cancers. Most women are diagnosed only after the disease has advanced. The American Cancer Society estimates 22,000 women will be diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer this year, and that about 15,000 will die (Ovarian Cancer National Alliance).

Lawson encourages all cancer survivors to join a community of writers. "Set aside any fears you may have about writing. It's not about perfection," Lawson says. "It's about honoring whatever experience you want to capture. Writing provides witness to our lives, and we honor our experiences through writing."

Founded in 1867, Johnson C. Smith University is an independent, close-knit urban university located in Charlotte, N.C. It has a growing national reputation for integrating the liberal arts with business, the sciences and technology in ways that empower tomorrow’s diverse entrepreneurial citizens and leaders. Offering 23 fields of study to more than 1,600 students from a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, the University’s excellent academic programs focus on servant leadership, civic engagement and global responsibility.          

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