Dec. 3, 2021

Nursing doctoral researcher creates documentary film on young adult cancer survivors as part of PhD thesis

Digital storyteller Mike Lang hosts film screening of Emerging Horizons on Dec. 8, presented by UCalgary Nursing
Mike Lang Emerging Horizons Documentary
Mike Lang with young adults creating their own short films about their cancer experiences. Supplied by Mike Lang from Emerging Horizons

For Mike Lang, MSc’15, telling your story is about much more than presenting the facts of a life experience with all its challenges and rewards.  

As a digital storytelling (DST) facilitator working in health and wellness settings, he helps people combine words, images, music and video editing tools to both cultivate a deeper understanding of lived experiences and craft meaning from them. 

On Dec. 8, UCalgary Nursing is hosting a virtual screening of Lang’s documentary, Emerging Horizons. It's a tangible example of how digital storytelling has the ability to transform, in this case, a cancer diagnosis into a more meaningful and shared journey. The film follows six young adults as they come together to create their own short films (digital story) about their cancer experiences and then share these films with friends and family. 

“I made a number of documentary films starting back in 2009 and was always amazed at how much I learned about my own life through the editing process,” explains Lang about how he became involved with DST. “I saw first-hand how important it is for us to ‘story’ the experiences of our lives, and saw the potential value in using something like DST to help people do that in a profound and meaningful way.” 

'No, I'm not a nurse'

As a cancer survivor himself, Lang began to facilitate workshops at Wellspring Calgary. UCalgary Nursing’s Dr. Catherine Laing, BN'98, MN'08, PhD'13, was intrigued by Lang’s work and asked him to be a research assistant on a digital storytelling project with paediatric and young adult cancer survivors. That collaboration led to Laing becoming his PhD supervisor a few years later. 

“No, I’m not a nurse, but Catherine and Nancy (Moules, who also researches in the area of oncology and in hermeneutics, Lang’s methodology for creating his doctoral data) convinced me that the Faculty of Nursing was the right place for me to do a PhD,” says Lang, whose background is in recreation therapy and psychosocial oncology research.

But as soon as I started taking nursing courses, I realized that my personal philosophy of health care (person-centred, biopsychosocial approach, valuing both technical and interpersonal skills) was very much aligned with nursing. 


Still from Emerging Horizons documentary by Mike Lang. Amanda is one of the six young adults who create their own short films (digital story) about their cancer experiences with Lang.

Still from Emerging Horizons documentary by Mike Lang. Amanda is one of the six young adults who create their own short films (digital story) about their cancer experiences with Lang.

As to why a documentary in addition to a written thesis, Lang says it was an important goal of his research to help people understand what happens for participants when they create a digital story.

“DST is an artistic experience that has a form, but cannot be reduced to a formula, and a hermeneutic research methodology is similar in that regard: both are focused on cultivating a deeper understanding of a phenomenon, not explaining it or reducing it to its basic elements. The flexibility of hermeneutic research methodology allowed me to explore a unique way to collect my data (documentary film) that could help maintain the complexity of the DST experience while also providing a deeper understanding of the experiences of the participants in the film through a written thesis.“ 

Supervisor Laing agrees that the data collection was unusual. “Mike challenged the traditional belief of what can be considered data,” she comments. “And  as a result, his thesis is a rigorous and astute account of how we might understand the DST process with young adult cancer survivors.” 

What is next for Lang, who started two businesses during his PhD studies (facilitating DST and making films — — and teaching others how to facilitate DST —

“I have projects and trainings booked well into 2022. I will also start filming a new series with Telus soon called Caregivers in the Wild where I take family caregivers on adventure expeditions that will both enhance their resilience and self-efficacy and help them understand the importance of self-care,” he says.

“I have also learned there is massive potential for both DST and documentary within the world of health research and I am excited to continue to explore how both of those mediums can be employed to help us gain a deeper understanding of the human health experience.” 

The research was supported by both the Eyes High Doctoral Recruitment Award from University of Calgary and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Fredrick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral (CGS-D).  

To register for the free virtual screening of Emerging Horizons on Dec. 8, RSVP here.