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Healing Benefits of Reading for Cancer Patients

healing benefits reading

I inherited a love of reading from my father.

He read to me as often as his work schedule allowed. However, it was his gift of a set of Little Golden Books that ignited a passion for reading that still burns in my heart today.

I think reading a few chapters of a good book is food for the heart and soul.

When doctors diagnosed Dad with mesothelioma, he turned to reading for spiritual guidance and an escape from reality.

As his physical limitations increased, so did Dad’s love for reading. He’d sit in his recliner reading for hours.

Sometimes Dad read for healing, but mostly he enjoyed reading for pleasure.

Other cancer patients might find spiritual healing and emotional pleasure within the pages of a book, just as my father did.

Using Books as Therapy

Perhaps the act of reading has properties of healing.

The oldest library in the world belonged to Pharaoh Ramses II. Above the entrance reportedly read the phrase, “The house of healing for the soul.”

In more recent history, mental health practitioners used literature in a therapeutic context.

Sigmund Freud used literature within his psychotherapy practices in the early 1900s.

Bibliotherapy, or the use of books in therapy, is a relatively common practice for many helping professionals today.

An article published by the American Counseling Association describes several therapeutic properties of using literature in modern therapy practices.

Some of the benefits of bibliotherapy include:

  • Self-Awareness: Through reading, people may learn more about their inner self, including their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Empathy: Readers may identify with characters in a story, gaining a deeper understanding of the feelings and emotions of others through the literature.
  • Hopefulness: People can relate to the struggles and triumphs of the characters they read about, developing a greater sense of hope in the trials of real life.
  • Reduced Negativity: Reading can diminish negative emotions, transforming them into more positive feelings and attitudes. This emotional transformation can yield a more reassuring outlook.

Professionals use clinical bibliotherapy as part of a larger therapeutic framework to address a variety of health issues such as trauma and chronic illness.

However, cancer patients and their caregivers may tap into some of the healing characteristics of reading a good book as well.

Reading Benefits for Cancer Patients

Professionals at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center claim reading books can help cancer patients and their caregivers.

Dietary books may help patients gain a deeper understanding of healing properties of nutrition and foods they might eat to improve their health.

Some authors compose cookbooks with cancer patients in mind. One might read about foods that boost the immune system and aid in healing after cancer treatment.

People affected by cancer might also enjoy reading nonfiction personal accounts of cancer survivors.

Readers can relate to the struggles of facing cancer and find hope in the triumphs of others. Reading memoirs of survivors can also help families better understand their loved one’s fears and emotions surrounding their diagnosis.

A Vacation from Real Life

Some patients and caregivers might not be interested in reading about certain aspects of cancer, despite the positive nature of the literature.

My father used reading as a means to break away from his diagnosis.

He liked spiritual reading, classic novels and science fiction. He could relax in his chair and take a small vacation from his chemotherapy treatments and medication regimen.

A good book has the power to teleport a reader to another time or place.

Reading can be much more engaging than other types of entertainment such as movies or television because readers must actively use their imagination to envision the characters, setting and plot.

Perhaps it is the healing properties of literature that Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan had in mind when he said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.”

Bonding with My Father

Admittedly, it may be a little old-fashioned, but some patients and caregivers might enjoy reading to each other from the same book.

My father and I read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in a hospital room when he had some chemotherapy complications.

I loved hearing him speak using the voices of the characters, George and Lenny. We laughed until we cried.

I read to him when I wasn’t sure he could even hear me. There were many times when my emotions left me feeling speechless, and the words written on the pages gave me a voice when I had none.

Despite the fact I was voicing the words of another, it was as though I said all I needed to say in those moments.

A Resource During Difficult Times

Families facing cancer usually spend a significant amount of time in medical facilities.

There are times when they can keep themselves entertained watching television in the rooms or leafing through pamphlets in the waiting areas.

However, books provide an entertaining way to pass the time.

Social workers and other members of an oncology team may suggest the most beneficial reading materials for your family.

A caregiver can also inquire with their loved one about which books they might like to hear or read.

If communication is limited, a caregiver can always choose reading materials that convey a message of love and support.

Whether in a clinical context, among loved ones or alone, literature presents many joys and opportunities for growth.

No matter the genre or format, reading can lighten the mood, enrich the spirit and feed the soul.


Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease. Read More

Sources
  1. Lutz, C.E. (1978, January). The oldest library motto.
    Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4306897
  2. Pehrsson, D. E. & McMillen, P. (2007). Bibliotherapy: Overview and implications for counselors (ACAPCD-02).
    Retrieved from: https://www.counseling.org/resources/library/ACA%20Digests/ACAPCD-02.pdf
  3. University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. (2014). House Call: Books Can Help Patients Deal With Cancer. Retrieved from: https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/oncolog/september-2014/house-call-books-can-help-patients-deal-with-cancer.html

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