How a Sheffield writer is using her passion and own experiences with cancer to help others

An award-winning Sheffield writer is supporting cancer patients through the challenges of their illness using writing - something she has benefitted from as a survivor herself.

By Lisa Wong
Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 1:10 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd November 2019, 4:18 pm
Poe–Tree Poetry Event 2019 - run annually in association with the NHS, which celebrates creativity, mental health and well-being. Pictured: Debjani Chatterjee (holding microphone) with other poets and NHS staff at the Virgin Money Lounge.
Poe–Tree Poetry Event 2019 - run annually in association with the NHS, which celebrates creativity, mental health and well-being. Pictured: Debjani Chatterjee (holding microphone) with other poets and NHS staff at the Virgin Money Lounge.

Debjani Chatterjee, aged 66, is a writer and poet, who is originally from India but has lived in South Yorkshire since 1977.

She has been ambitious about writing since she was a teenager and believes it offers many benefits, including promoting self-awareness, venting frustration and allowing exploration of one’s subconscious mind to name a few.

Debjani said: “No two people are alike but writing might reach corners of emotions something else hasn’t reached.”

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She believes it can be used as a form of therapy with ‘tremendous healing potential’.

Debjani added: “Everyone has certain times in their life when they are in need of mental health support.”

She spoke of her own experience after being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer in 2007 - the same type of cancer that cut her sister’s life short some years before.

Debjani described her first year of cancer treatment as ‘a very bad time’ and ‘very challenging’.

One of the side effects she had was neuropathy - nerve damage that often occurs in the hands and feet as a result of chemotherapy - which affected her ability to write.She explained: “I couldn’t write. It was so frustrating. It felt like my identity had gone.”

Debjani began to feel a bit lost as writing had always played such a large part of her life - that was until she received a phone call that winter saying she was being awarded an MBE.

She said: “It was one thing that encouraged me.”

Having always been involved with voluntary work as well, Debjani decided that voluntary work and writing should now be equally important.

She told of how there was very little support for cancer patients at the time of her diagnosis and any support groups that did exist were quite specific in terms of the type of cancer patient a group sought to serve.

Debjani decided that she could do something about it and started up her own support group - one that was ‘more inclusive’ and that would also be open to carers.

Dejani said: “I realised during treatment that you become a big burden for your family.”

A start up grant from Macmillan Cancer Support allowed The Healing Word to be formed in 2009.

Due to lack of funds, members now meet at Debjani’s home, near Norfolk Heritage Park in Sheffield, usually on the last Sunday of each month.

She said: “In The Healing Word we engage in writing, reading and storytelling. We do these over cups of tea, coffee & biscuits.

“It is for any cancer survivor or their carer. Anyone who has also lost a family member to cancer can join if they like writing, reading or storytelling.

“We are a small, multicultural, informal & friendly group.”

Members range from experienced writers to beginners.

Despite being diagnosed with a second type of cancer in 2012, this did not stop Debjani with her achievements and passion for helping people.

She was selected as one of the Olympic torch bearers as the relay passed through South Yorkshire, in association with the London 2012 Olympics.

As she underwent her second battle with cancer treatment, she continued caring for her 86-year-old mother as well as her husband, whom both live with her.

She also enrolled on a counselling course at Sheffield college, qualifying as a counsellor in 2016.

Now a survivor, she is a counsellor at Sheffield Central Counselling, where she sees clients two afternoons a week.

Debjani said: “It is a great privilege to be able to work in an area where we are making a difference.”

She told how one of the reasons she went back to college to gain her counselling certificate was because she realised it was work she was already doing.

In previous places she worked, Debjani was often the person people went to for advice, for example, at a Bengali women’s support group.

She is the only counsellor at Sheffield Central Counselling that offers art therapies and wants people to know that there is more than just talking therapies on offer.

From writing to yoga to origami, Debjani ensures her clients come first, believing that ‘therapies are consequential’.

She said: “If people are open to new experiences, they can try all the arts, they can find which one they are naturally most inclined towards.”

As well as offering her experience of the arts, she believes she has a lot of life experiences that people can learn from, which she describes as ‘so important’.

Debjani has grown up in several different countries including India, Egypt, Hong Kong and Japan, which she says have all become part of her inheritance.

As well as the various academic achievements Debjani has achieved, including an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University, she has written, translated, and edited several books.

Debjani is a patron of Survivors’ Poetry and writes for children as well as adults - she believes everyone should give it a go.

She said: “Writing is not for everyone but I believe everyone can do it.”

For more information about The Healing Word, email Debjani: [email protected]

For more information about Sheffield Central Counselling, see: