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Personalized Poetry Comforts Cancer Patients

Originally published May 1, 2022

Last reviewed November 23, 2022

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A Keck Medicine of USC program is helping uplift cancer patients with a unique, artful therapy: poems tailored to the journey of each individual. 

Genevieve “Viva” Nelson is writing poems for cancer patients that she says, “celebrate their lives and help them see that they are so much larger than their diagnoses.”

It’s the latest offering of Keck Medicine of USC’s Institute of Arts in Medicine.

Formed in 2019 by oncologist Jacek Pinski, MD, PhD, clinical director, and Nelson, creative director, the institute seeks to improve cancer patients’ quality of life — and possibly change their clinical outcomes — through music, visual arts and now poetry. 

Dr. Pinski identifies patients likely to benefit from a personalized poem, then gathers information about their backgrounds and interests from them, their family members and caregivers. Nelson then uses his findings to create a poem tailored to each patient. 

A healing, heartfelt surprise

“We’re doing this to change cancer patients’ experience by surprising them with something that warms their hearts and makes them feel good,” says Dr. Pinski, associate professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “The reactions have been very emotional and overwhelmingly positive.”

Nelson adds that she tries to “incorporate children and spouses in the poetry to celebrate the patient’s family too.” 

We’re doing this to change cancer patients’ experience by surprising them with something that warms their hearts and makes them feel good.

Jacek Kinski, MD, PhD, clinical director,

Nelson has written about 20 poems and is starting to help patients write their own.

The institute also recently began research to explore the utility of creative interventions in lowering stress and anxiety among patients undergoing painful procedures such as bone marrow biopsy and lumbar puncture.

Patients interested in receiving or writing poems, and family and staff members interested in contributing to the program, may contact Nelson at genevieve.nelson@med.usc.edu.

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USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center
Robin Heffler
Robin Heffler is a freelance writer for Keck Medicine of USC.

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