How To, and Why You Should, Write About Terminal Illness

If you wrote a research paper about lung cancer, you’d collect primary and secondary sources.  You’d underline and highlight passages in books and articles. You might watch a documentary or interview someone.  Your audience would be reading for one explicit purpose: to acquire more knowledge about lung cancer.

What if, instead of a research paper, you want to write a fictional short story in which a character has lung cancer.  Your audience isn’t reading for the sake of lung cancer knowledge-they’re seeking a connection with a piece of literature (or maybe just an interesting read).  So how do you create a compelling narrative? How do you create a connection that touches readers affected by cancer while engaging those who haven’t been affected?

One of the most beautiful features of fiction is that it can speak to experience. A well written piece on terminal illness can positively impact readers. Therefore, conducting thorough research on your topic is critical to speaking to your audience.  Creating an accurate, compelling story about a subject as sensitive as terminal illness seems daunting; however, it is for this very reason that it should be done. Be sure to consider the tone, theme, and characters of your story, as how they are shaped will impact your audience’s feelings towards terminal illness.

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Start by looking at non-profit websites dedicated to the terminal illness your are interested in writing about to get a feel for your subject matter.  Check out some fiction that sheds light on terminal illness, such as The Fault in Our Stars, to see multiple writing techniques you might use to approach your topic.  Read and watch interviews of people who suffer from cancer to get an idea of what they personally value and struggle with after their diagnosis.

Most importantly, invest in research outside of your computer. Volunteer to visit cancer patients at your local hospital or residents suffering from Alzheimer’s at a nursing home.  By connecting with people diagnosed with these terminal illnesses, you can experience their environment, and by extension obtain a firmer grasp of the range of emotions that come with their illness.  Simply observing these environments and routines are pivotal to creating a realistic narrative, as patients’ and residents’ personal stories, behavior, and circumstances generate empathy that cannot be found in any article.

Your research should highlight every aspect of your character’s life or routine, and it may be particularly helpful to emphasize moments that aren’t directly related to terminal illness.  You may want to touch on financial struggles, insurance issues, appropriate nutrition (or lack thereof), hygiene, and other day to day tasks that become challenges as a result of a severe decline in health.  Because these are everyday tasks, some of which are necessary to survive, they can appeal to average readers while catering specifically to those who have been affected by terminal illness.

The therapeutic nature that fiction can provide makes it an excellent source for spreading awareness on the complexities of terminal illness.  It’s for this reason that, if you’re considering to write about this topic, you shouldn’t shy away from it in fear of misrepresenting the illness.  The steps you should take when writing about his topic are certainly lengthier than writing about a family vacation or experience at school. However, if you conduct thorough research, your story can positively impact your readers in ways that other pieces will never be able to.

So, can you write about such a sensitive topic?  Yes. Should you? Absolutely.  

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