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The healing power of storytelling

After a life-changing diagnosis of breast cancer in 2012, Sandra Marinella decided to change her story

The healing power of storytelling

After a life-changing diagnosis of breast cancer in 2012, Sandra Marinella decided to change her story

For 30 years, Arizona State University alumna Sandra Marinella was a teacher, her goal was to teach students to be better writers. But after a life-changing diagnosis of breast cancer in 2012, Marinella decided to make a change. She became a storyteller and author, writing her own stories about people.

Marinella’s first book is called “The Story You Need to Tell," and is designed to help people cope with traumas, illnesses or loss through the art of writing. Armed with the stories from cancer patients and veterans and her years as a literature teacher, she created a guide to transformational storytelling, set to launch in mid-May. 

“I have a passion for words, and I think throughout my career, I have come to realize that words can play a phenomenal role in helping to heal us and grow us and transform us,” Marinella says. “My pivotal moment, the moment I decided to write the book was in 2012, I discovered I had breast cancer and learning you have cancer is a very traumatic experience. You suddenly realize you have to navigate a whole new world and that you have to find new ways of coping with the world.”

Marinella graduated from ASU in 1995 with her Master’s degree in humanities/ humanistic studies and says she's used her schooling background to further understand the people she writes for. 

The ASU alumna says she shares her experience with journaling and expressive writing to navigate challenges including her battle with breast cancer and postpartum depression.

Marinella spent some time looking around for a book like the one she had in mind. After finding nothing, she decided she could be the one to write it — finding there was a real need for the kind of book she had in mind. Marinella also spent some time studying the effects that writing can have in times of crisis and found over 200 studies that show writing can provide physical, psychological and even social benefits.

“Since I have been a writing teacher my whole career, I did what I always do, I turned to my writing,” Marinella says. “As I navigated the treatment, and the surgeries, I think I came to understand that my personal writing was profoundly helpful. I wanted to share that with others and it was pretty easy for me to do since I taught writing for 30 years. I knew a lot of ways that personal writing could be used to help us as a guide, even as a therapeutic tool.”

To develop the exercises in her book, Marinella pulled together exercises that she had used with her students. After trying these out while volunteering at the Virginia Piper Cancer Center, and downtown at the Veterans Hospital, she found a number of strategies which helped people write through difficult times.

Some of those exercises include: understanding a need for silence, a time to try and deal what happened, breaking your silence, changing your perspective on things to better understand the dynamics of the story and self-editing.

“As you go through the experience, you first have to absorb it, then begin to talk about it, you have to accept it, but as you begin to accept it, then you have ways of dealing with it,” Marinella says. “The self-editing is ‘ok, now I can choose how this story is going to end. Am I going to be miserable … or am I going to find positive ways to integrate this event into my life?’ Self-editing is looking at that story objectively and then having the power to rewrite that story in a way that will work for you as best as it can.”

Marinella features stories of people she talked to while writing the book. One of the stories is from Barbara Lee, who, in her own words, is a female military veteran who has experienced military sexual trauma during her time of service. Through a writing group at Phoenix Veterans Affairs, Marinella helped her realize her talent for writing.

“From day one Sandi has been a supporter and mentor,” Lee says. "She took me seriously as a poet. At one point, I thought I wanted to be a novelist. Sandi helped to shape me as a writer. I learn from her which genres of writing I enjoy and suited me as a writer.”

Another story, featured on the book’s website, is about Jen Campisano. When Campisano was 32, she was diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer. At the time of the diagnosis, the cancer had spread to her lungs, spleen and her breast.

“I have no idea why I got better,” Campisano says. “My own oncologist called it a miracle. Of course, the simple explanation is diagnostic error. But writing my story through my blog and my book helped me process everything I faced those 5 years. Even if it didn't change my cancer, writing helped me find a voice as I faced my mortality.”

For more information about Marinella and her project, visit her website: Her book is available for pre-order from Amazon, Indiebound and Barnes and Noble.

Reach the reporter at or follow @nicolegimpl_ on Twitter.

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