Grappling with cancer: A storyteller tells her story

Paramasivam Sammana and Cathy Spagnoli share a laugh. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Paramasivam Sammana and Cathy Spagnoli share a laugh.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

For decades, storyteller Cathy Spagnoli has traveled around the world, learning and sharing tales from regions near and far. Today, after her own story has taken a difficult turn, the internationally known artist spends quiet days at home on Maury Island.

Spagnoli learned in November that a cancerous tumor had grown on her brain, and though it’s been removed, her prognosis is unclear.

In the months since her first CAT scan, Spagnoli, 59, has undergone three surgeries. Chemotherapy robbed her of the hair that had once fallen to her waist, and for a brief but alarming time, she even lost the ability to walk and talk.

“For a storyteller, that’s the worst thing in the world,” Spagnoli said. “That was what was most scary about this whole thing.”

She’s kept a cheerful outlook, despite the tiring medical care. Though her health does not permit her to tell stories as prolifically as she once did, she keeps her mind agile by learning Japanese characters and slowly translating Japanese stories into English.

“We hope, like anybody else, that Cathy will get better,” said her husband Paramasivam Sammana, who is also a self-employed artist. “I want her to get back to what she likes to do.”

Spagnoli’s state-sponsored Basic Health medical insurance has covered very few of her enormous medical costs, she said, and she and her husband are now facing “thousands and thousands and thousands” of dollars in unpaid bills.

Medication and rehabilitation carry a high price tag that Basic Health does not cover, Sammana said. One medication, Temodar, costs $3,700 for a one-month supply of five tablets. The couple must pay $1,300 per month for the pills, even after insurance and charity bring down the cost.

“Basic Health only covers the basics,” Sammana said. “$1,300 every month, just for five pills in a small bottle. Three bottles, and you could buy a new car — or those.”

As a result, Spagnoli and Sammana have been draining their savings to pay the mounting costs.

Fellow storytellers and artists have rallied around the world-renowned spinner of yarns, and have planned a benefit event of stories and music this weekend. Sales from an art auction will also go to offset Spagnoli’s mounting medical expenses.

“Cathy is an amazing person,” said Allison Cox, an Island storyteller and an organizer of the benefit event. “She has an amazing capacity for language.”

Spagnoli’s niche in the storytelling world is that of Asian tales. She spent years traveling in Asia learning local lore and sharing her growing cache of stories with others.

“They’re just so rich,” she said of Asian stories. “Getting interested in Asia catapulted me into storytelling. ... There are a lot of people doing other things, but not a whole lot doing Asian storytelling.”

And though Spagnoli has a low profile on the Island, she’s “probably more well known internationally than almost any storyteller in America because she’s traveled so extensively in Asia and India,” said Merna Ann Hecht, an Island storyteller and a founding member of the Seattle Storytelling Guild. “Cathy is one of our local, but also national and international, treasures.”

She said she’s looking forward to the convergence of several local storytellers and musicians at the Blue Heron on Sunday.

A pirate tale, a Celtic yarn, a Native American story and more will be shared at the event; music also will span continents.

“We’re there to honor her, but we have to do it each in our own way,” said Cox, who will tell a story she heard from an old tinker. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”

Spagnoli’s impressive career includes publication of 15 books, accolades from professionals throughout the world and a following young and old.

Her repertoire of stories includes epics, humorous anecdotes and everything in between. Her favorite tale changes as she does. She cannot pick a favorite today, she said, but she knows which stories are relevant to her now.

“Right now, important for me are stories with humor, stories that say, ‘It’s OK; we can do it,’” she said.

Spagnoli’s airy home — each nail and board put into place by her husband — is filled with memorabilia from her extensive travels, paintings and sculptures by Sammana and hundreds of books and articles that Spagnoli has studied to learn different stories.

No matter where she travels, audiences are eager to hear a new narrative, she said — storytelling is universal.

She’s looking forward to writing and telling tales again soon, she added.

“I’m so glad I’ve done all I’ve done,” she said. “When something like this comes, you say, ‘Wow, thank goodness I didn’t put it off. It’s been amazing to see so many things.”


A storytelling and music event to support Cathy Spagnoli will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 7, at the Blue Heron.

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