How Michele Petrone found a way to help us express our feelings about cancer

Life goes on , Michele Angelo Petrone from The Emotional Cancer Journey

By Professor Lesley Fallowfield, Director of the Psychosocial-Oncology Group, Cancer Research UK, University of Sussex

Enormous advances have been made in the treatment of cancer. Thanks to earlier detection through screening and better diagnostic methods, together with an impressive array of different treatments, more and more people have a realistic chance of cure or at least of living well and for longer with their disease.

Despite this, the word cancer fills most of us with dread. Surveys show it to be one of the most feared diseases. Merely facing the knowledge of having a life threatening disease, let alone dealing with the physical effects of treatment, stretches most people to their limits. The emotional pain of family and friends also can be agony as they struggle to find ways of helping their loved ones.

The healthcare professionals who witness this physical and emotional pain on a daily basis may respond in a variety of ways. A few become so inured to it all that they become indifferent and unmoved, while others may adopt a cool, professional detachment as their only means of coping. Some experience considerable psychological difficulties and emotional burnout themselves and seek solace in dysfunctional and unhelpful ways.

So cancer potentially affects everyone - the patient, family, friends and healthcare professionals trying to help. As we have become more high-tech in our treatments, we have sometimes forgotten how to be high-touch as well. Listening to clinicians discussing cancer at conferences I sometimes feel that they understand far more about the characteristics of individual cancer cells than they do about the people unfortunate enough to harbour them.

They know and acknowledge even less about the psychological costs that cancer and its treatment imposes on us all. Those of us who work within oncology are sometimes surprisingly inarticulate at expressing the emotional triumphs and tragedies that will be part of anyone's cancer journey.

As Virginia Woolf once observed in an essay entitled On being ill, "If someone falls in love then they have Shakespeare or Keats to speak for them, but let one try to explain pain, and language at once runs dry."

So to capture what cancer really means to all those affected, we need other modes of expression such as Michele Petrone's powerful and deeply moving paintings. Michele found a means of touching us all whatever our connection with cancer, in a way that graphs and statistics cannot. His own art and the prose that accompanied The Emotional Cancer Journey , changes the way people feel and view the disease. Self-awareness is part of the process of coping with cancer. The workshops that he conducted and which have inspired those people leading the MAP Foundation now - encouraged patients, carers and others to give expression to their feelings through art , even if they have never painted, drawn or sculpted before. These workshops have freed people up in quite dramatic ways.

There are many potential therapeutic gains for patients and their families and it is encouraging that our more enlightened medical and nurse training schools now recognise that including aspects of the medical humanities in the curricula has benefits for all.

The Emotional Cancer Journey has been the start of another journey for us all into gaining not only a greater insight into what cancer meant for one amazing individual, but also into a deeper analysis of our own willingness and ability to share the feelings that cancer generates in ourselves and others.