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Color in Life and Cancer

Power of Words

Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times.  As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.”  Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.



by Sharon Bray, Ed.D.

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.  (Marcus Zuzak, The Book Thief, 2005)

Grey was on my mind this weekend, although not triggered by the reflection of my graying hair in the mirror.  Instead, as I cleaned the shelves of my office closet and re-organized a box of art materials I keep for grandchildren’s visits, I spilled a box of sixty-four Crayola crayons on the floor.   While I knelt to pick them up, I thought how full of bold and vivid colors the children’s artwork is.  That is, until I picked up the grey crayon, a color I’ve most often associated with boredom and old age.  My perception of grey was challenged by a talented medical student in a 2016 writing workshop I was leading. 

We began with a box of interior paint chips scattered on a coffee table.  Each color had been labeled with unusually descriptive names like “goose down,” “chatsworth creme,” “tranquil dreams,” “mischievous mikasa,” or “kitten whiskers,” to name a very few.  The group was invited then to choose one or more colors and use them as their writing prompt.   As they chose colors from the paint chips, there was a good deal of laughter before the writing began.  Yet to my surprise, one student chose a single chip, labeled with something like “thunder,” but unmistakably, a plain grey.   When the timed writing had ended and everyone had the opportunity to read aloud, Sarah waited until the end.  She held up the grey paint chip and began reading. 

… Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”

and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”

Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,

waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside… 

White is before, but give me the after

Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.

Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.

Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,

the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,

ugliest and sweetest shade.

(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April, 2016)

Colors have strong emotional associations.  Some colors elicit almost universal meaning, for example, the blue spectrum communicates calm, but also sadness.  Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger.  But grey?  Sarah’s poem forced me to reconsider how I saw and thought about grey, “the ugliest and sweetest shade.”

The mention of a color can immediately evoke feelings, memories or a mood.  Think about how color plays a role in our lives.  It appears in the lyrics of popular songs: “Red Dirt Girl,” “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” or “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.”   Color is an integral part of our daily lives and shapes us more than we may realize.

Humans make all sorts of color choices every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our minds (“How Color Shapes our Lives,” by Elijah Wolfson, The Atlantic, Jan. 29, 2014).

Color plays a number of roles in cancer.  Think of the many different colored ribbons used to create cancer awareness., for example, sells a variety of colored cancer awareness products covering 29 cancer types or cancer groups, including ribbons, t-shirts, beanies, jewelry, scarves and more.  As author Bill Briggs notes in his article, “What’s Your Cancer Color?”

“At the beginning, amid a kaleidoscope of colors meant to stoke cancer awareness, one hue rules. Think pink. Out of all the ribbons for awareness, pink is so effectively tied to breast cancer attention, there can be a veritable sea of it during runs and walks. But beyond that pervasive shade, the palette gets busier than a microwaved box of Crayolas.” (

Color also affects mood and emotion in cancer patients.  In “Life, Cancer and the Color Green,” two-time cancer survivor Laura Yeager writes, 

The leaves have quietly appeared, fresh and bright. And the grass is the color of neon green. On Saturday, liberated from our work week, we walk on muddy trails surrounded by this beautiful forest. All is well.  

The next day, I see a woman in Macy’s with no hair and a greenish face. I think to myself, “I’ve been there.” She is battling a disease that could kill her. She is chemo green. Might as well be army green.   (

Color also is a way to explore complex emotions in cancer and, sometimes, in unexpected ways.  For example, in “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy” by Mary Milton, her poem is infused with color and humor.  She was, apparently, inspired by a friend, who advised her “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” as she prepared for a double mastectomy.  Ignoring the advice, Milton describes how she went shopping for herself, buying,

…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats

Besides it was on sale…

(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume One, 2001)

Humor aside, there are much more serious issues when it comes to color in cancer care and treatment.  These are the ones defined by cultural differences. In the current climate of political and social unrest, issues of cultural differences and diversity are dominating the news, other colors, like “brown” or “black”  may have negative connotations for how people are treated or affect how children feel about themselves.  In Tan to Tamarind:  Poems about the Color Brown (2009) , a book for young readers by Malathi Iyengar and Jamel Akib, children are asked, “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” and in a series of poems, offered fresh and enchanting ways to think about being brown and the color brown, just as Sarah’s poem about the color grey did those of us in the writing workshop.  Iyengar creates enticing images evoked by the color brown.

A mug of hot chocolate,

smooth and creamy brown… 

Milk-tea brown

Spicy sweet masala tea brown 

Reddish brown mountains…

Strong, unyielding brown

Warm, abiding brown 

Color is a factor which, unfortunately, affects healthcare treatment and access.  In The Many Shades of Survivorship, a December 2009 supplemental booklet to Cure Today, author Kathy Latour explored issues of cultural differences in treatment and care.  Not surprisingly, race and ethnicity have been shown to affect survival rates and create disparities in healthcare access, early diagnosis, individualized treatment options and palliative care.  ( 

Marjorie Kagawa-Singer PhD, and her colleagues, reporting on their 2010 study of racial and ethnic differences in the incidence, suffering, and mortality from cancer, noted the growing disparity between increases in cancer incidence between white and people of color:

Ethnic “minorities” (a term historically applied to groups of color, i.e., American Indian/Alaska native, African American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander) are predicted to be the majority by 2050, and due to the aging and growth of communities of color, a 99% increase in incidence of cancers is anticipated for minorities, compared with a 31% increase for whites(

The task is a challenging one, but much more than medical research needs to be done if we want to succeed at treating and curing cancer.  

Color.  It surrounds us and influences the daily fabric of our lives–emotions, perceptions, even our health.  Think about the role of color in your life.  How has it influenced your life and cancer experience?  How does color affect or inspire you–whether mood, belongings, cancer or skin color?  Try exploring the effect of color in your life through story, essay or poetry. 

Writing Suggestions:

·     If you are a person of color, write ways in which you have experienced any differences in treatment or care.

·     Think about the colors of the infusion room, radiation waiting room, or a hospital room you have experienced during your cancer.  What colors soothed you?  What jarred?  Given a paintbrush, what colors would you use for these rooms and why? 

·     Draw, paint or paste colors on a blank page, one that symbolizes your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope.  Then brainstorm the words and images that come to mind before writing.   Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish.

Let us hear from you!  CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon.  Send them to Karen Irwin.  500 word limit.



SharonBraySmallSharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site,, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.



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