Sam Falk (class of 2013)

Honors Alumni Spotlight

The Healing Power of Storytelling: Examining the Value of Communication Amongst Cancer Patients

As a communication studies major, Sam Falk (class of 2013) is intrigued by how people express themselves through the written word. His interest took a surprising turn when he learned how cancer patients are using the Internet to share their stories of living with a rare, aggressive form of the disease.

Eager to learn more, Falk, a senior at NSU, began pursuing an Honors thesis on medical pathography, which is the study of an illness presented in a narrative form. He focused his research on how these stories—published in print and online—have become a pivotal part of the lives of those facing serious illness, in this case, leiomyosarcoma (LMS).

"Because the disease is not well understood, some LMS patients write their stories [or 'pathographies'] to communicate their fears, share new findings, provide a sense of hope for others, and converse about alternative approaches for treatment," said Falk, a member of the Undergraduate Honors Program, which offers high-achieving students opportunities for academic excellence, leadership, and engagement—including the completion of a Divisional Honors thesis.

"My thesis will help demonstrate how patients with LMS and other rare diseases communicate and make sense of their illnesses through various media" including blogs, support Web sites, books, poetry, journals, email, and videos, Falk said.

Falk became interested in the topic after enrolling in an Honors course called The Pathography: Patients' Stories of Illness, taught by his thesis advisor, Edwin Stieve, Ph.D., associate professor at NSU. In that class, Falk read the work of Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, the author of Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography. Credited with coining the term "pathography," Hawkins helped to define this genre by examining case studies that illustrate the diversity of each patient's experience.

Much of Falk's thesis research comes from his own interviews with LMS patients, exploring how they use pathographies to cope with their diagnoses, assist with everyday living, acquire information, and share their experiences.

Pathographies may help narrow the gap between medical protocol and personal experience.

"Medicine is not just medical terms and technology," Stieve said. "It is transactions between doctors and patients. It's interpreting and understanding patients' stories. A pathography is a tool that allows a physician to understand the whole story...and it will help in writing a patient's history."

"An undergraduate thesis is a unique and significant commitment," said Marlisa Santos, Ph.D., professor and former director of the Division of Humanities. "Such an achievement gives a student invaluable preparation for graduate school or career demands involving research and writing."

For Falk, it was an opportunity he couldn't pass by.

"No matter what a student plans to do in life, a thesis is always pertinent," Falk said. "You can tailor it to your niche or make it as broad or narrow as you like.

"And this topic was very meaningful for me. My research discovers content often overshadowed by the more objective physical sciences, empirical research, and clinical trials. It explores the notion that medicine involves more than orthodox scientific practices and standard treatment options."

Because Honors theses like Falk's are comparable to those conducted at the master's level, Honors students aim to share their work at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Falk presented research on patient narratives at the 2013 national conference of the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association. Falk and Stieve also will attend and present at the National Popular Culture Conference in Washington, D.C., in spring 2013.

The thesis and other learning opportunities exclusive to those in the Honors program offer students like Falk a competitive advantage when applying to graduate school. As a member of the Dual Admission Program in law, Falk plans to attend law school and use his communications and legal education to help others in a health-related capacity.