Patients and caregivers share their experiences through Storybank

The Stanford Storybank features conversations between two people about learning, connecting and healing.

- By Mandy Erickson

Margaret McCulloch (left) and Jackie Fitzpatrick recount how Fitzpatrick's breast cancer diagnosis affected their friendship. They recorded their conversation as part of the Stanford Storybank project.
Paul Sakuma

 “I clearly remember the day you told me there was a lump in your breast,” Margaret McCulloch, 52, told her best friend, Jackie Fitzpatrick, 54. 

The two were sitting in an improvised recording studio on the third floor of Stanford Cancer Center South Bay. Esther Chyan, RN, a supportive care manager, was working the audio, ensuring their conversation recorded clearly. Bryanna Gallaway, director of service excellence, provided information and forms in preparation for the recording session, and was ready to facilitate the conversation should it need any additional guidance. 

But there was no need for facilitating; once the two got going, they recounted Fitzpatrick’s cancer treatment journey as if they were sitting on a porch, reminiscing over a bottle of rosé. 

McCulloch recounted how she reassured her friend not to worry, but “when I got the phone call that you were diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer, my heart sank,” she said. 

Fitzpatrick had invited McCulloch to join her in volunteering for a storytelling marathon that took place last October at the San Jose Stanford Cancer Center facility. They participated in the Stanford Storybank program, which Stanford Health Care is conducting in partnership with StoryCorps, a national organization whose mission is to capture, honor and preserve stories about human experiences through audio interviews. The recording equipment can be taken to any SHC location.

Each conversation features two people — a patient and a family member, for example, or two SHC employees — and lasts 40 minutes. If the two people agree, the conversation will be archived within the U.S. Library of Congress, and edited down to shorter story segment clips for use by SHC. 

The Stanford Storybank was launched to create a space for patients, families and staff to share their experiences, providing an opportunity for all to learn, connect, heal and inspire. It’s built on the premise that everyone has a story to share, and provides a platform to amplify the voices of the SHC community.  

As of Feb. 1, 35 stories have been recorded. The Service Excellence team posts the edited audio clips on the SHC intranet, shares them during management meetings and presents them during orientation or staff training sessions. The conversations “bring us back to why we’re here, why we do what we do,” said Alpa Vyas, vice president of patient experience.

The team also posts a “story of the month” that’s available on SoundCloud.

Cathartic conversations

While instructing Fitzpatrick and McCulloch before the recording began, Gallaway told them, “It’s OK to cry; it’s OK to laugh; it’s OK to do anything you would normally do in a conversation.”

The two friends, who met 12 years ago when their children were in the same kindergarten class, discussed the effect Fitzpatrick’s cancer, diagnosed six years ago, has had on their lives and their friendship.

The SHC employees who are part of the Storybank project are (from left) Esther Chyan, Malea Schulte, Bryanna Gallaway, Martha Cruz and Alpa Vyas.
Paul Sakuma

“How do you distract your mind, not to think about cancer 24/7?” McCulloch said. 

“I don’t dwell on the negative stuff,” Fitzpatrick said.

“I admire that about you,” McCulloch said. 

“The one thing that cancer has given me is a clear, concise view on my family and what’s important to me,” Fitzpatrick continued. “I made amends with people I needed to make amends with. It’s a blessing. It’s been a difficult journey, but it’s kind of worth it.”

The two laughed about how Fitzpatrick’s hair grew back white after a round of chemotherapy and she looked like Annie Lennox. “I kind of had fun with it,” she said.

Turning serious, she asked McCulloch, “What’s it like for you? I sometimes think it’s harder for the people not going through it.”

“Sometimes I think that I’m weak. I want to make you better, but I can’t,” McCulloch confessed. 

After the recording session was over, the two friends described the conversation as cathartic.

Fitzpatrick said she hoped participating in the Stanford Storybank program would help other people diagnosed with cancer. “I really want to provide hope to people in the same situation,” she said.

The Stanford Storybank stories will be archived on SHC Connect and stored in the Library of Congress. For information on how to participate in the Stanford Storybank, contact

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

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