In 2005 the YourStory: Record and Remember project began a partnership with Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) to record the life story of any person with cancer who requested this service. To date, more than 1,200 individuals have recorded their personal histories, providing both a lasting legacy for their families and friends and a time of reflection during the treatment process.
Meg Brady, University of Utah professor in the English Department, developed the YourStory project from one of her courses in narrative genres of memoir and life history. She reflects upon the ten years of facilitating the program at HCI's Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness and Integrative Health Center.
Why do you think it's valuable for people with cancer to record their life stories?
"Telling your life story is valuable for patients in so many ways. Often cancer patients feel that they are now defined by their disease. By telling stories of their lives, patients are able to remember who they really are. As one recent patient told me, 'Doing this recording reminds me that there is life before cancer and there will be life after cancer. It seems that our lives are so encompassed by fighting the cancer right now that there is hardly any room not only for life, but even memories of life, because you are so focused on what you are trying to do and that's get better. So I really appreciate this opportunity to remind myself about who I am, the things I've done, and the things I want to do.'
"Other patients have appreciated the chance to leave a legacy for their families and to update that legacy each year around their birthdays. Sometimes people with cancer feel inadequate and somewhat useless because they don't have their usual vim and vigor to help others. Recording a life story is a way to impart wisdom and lessons learned during a lifetime, and it's a process that doesn't really take much energy because the facilitators do the work of asking questions and triggering memories."
In the ten years you've been doing this, what have you learned from the people whose stories you've helped record?
"For the facilitators, this is an incredibly rewarding opportunity. One day a woman brought her mother, who was an HCI patient, to record her life story. I could tell the woman wasn't pleased about the prospect, but after some discussion she revealed she thought she had lived a 'boring life.' I assured her that I'd never heard a boring life story and she replied, 'Well, get ready!' We laughed. She agreed to at least begin and once she got started it was difficult to stop; she returned two more times to complete her life story. As we finished, she said, 'You know, before we started this, I thought I had led a boring life. But now I know that I have had a wonderful life! It has really been amazing!' It's experiences like this that continually remind me of the importance of this work."
Do any particular stories stand out?
"Every single day of the last ten years that I have recorded life stories from HCI patients, I have continually learned anew the rich diversity of who we are as human beingsand how much we are the same! The power of the individual spirit is amazing, and the strength and joy to be found in telling stories of one's life help to renew that spirit in so many ways.
"In more practical terms, from various patients I've learned how to de-scent a baby skunk, what it's like to be a muleskinner in Disneyland, how to survive sleeping on the highest bunk of a Navy battleship, what getting lost in a department store at the age of six teaches you about the importance of family, how to create special stories for one's grandchildren, how growing up in a tent can affect your lifeand the list goes on and on. We've recorded more than 1,200 life stories and every one has included remarkable moments that stay with me for a long, long time."
What is the future of YourStory at HCI?
"We now have four new volunteer life story facilitators that I've trained this past summer. As they become even more involved in the recording process, I see the very real possibility of continuing the YourStory program far into the future at HCI. Once you start doing this work, it's just about impossible to stop doing it! It's a life changer, for sure."
To schedule an appointment for the YourStory program, call the Wellness and Integrative Health Center at 801-587-4585.