Journaling Your Cancer Journey

Benefits of Expressive Writing for People with Cancer

Journaling to Cope With Cancer

Journaling, or “expressive writing” is a creative and emotional outlet for many people, whether healthy or struggling with cancer. Putting pen to paper can clarify your thoughts and preserve memories. If you have ever kept a gratitude journal, you are likely aware that it's hard to experience negative emotions such as anger, resentment, or even fear, while at the same time feeling gratitude. At the same time, expressing those negative emotions in writing may help you look at them one last time, and then let go.  

I've had people ask me about the single best thing that helped me cope during cancer treatment, and rediscover joy and meaning afterward. I don't have to hesitate with my answer; it was writing.

Of course, writing isn't for everyone, but even if you're a lifelong non-writer who breaks into a sweat at the thought of writing a paper, humor me and read on. I don't have studies to back it up, but I can say I've run into many people who never kept a journal before their diagnosis of cancer - and are so glad they started.

Why Write When You Have Cancer?  

A few reasons you may consider writing down your thoughts include:

  • To relieve stress.
  • To chronicle your journey.
  • To clarify your thoughts.
  • To help you let go - Check out this article on letting go to live with cancer.
  • To find the silver linings - If you are wondering what silver linings you have experienced, check out this article on how living with cancer often changes people for the better.
  • To leave a legacy.
  • And, who knows? – You wouldn't be the first person who wrote out thoughts on their cancer journey and ended up publishing them in a book. Examples are "Living With Lung Cancer: My Journey" by Tom Cappiello, and Cancer Journey: A Caregiver's View from the Passenger Seat by Cynthia Zahm Siegfried.

Benefits of Journaling for People with Cancer

Studies to assess the impact of journaling on people with cancer are still in their infancy. Thus far it appears that journaling may help more with the physical than psychological symptoms of cancer, but a few small studies have found that expressive writing may help with emotional well-being as well, especially in improving the quality of life for women living with cancer.

That said, several studies have found benefits in expressive writing for some of the specific symptoms experienced by people living with cancer. Some of these include:

  • Pain management - Several studies have found that expressive writing may be effective in both reducing the intensity of pain, as well as your ability to cope with pain.
  • Chemobrain - That annoying symptom of forgetting where you put your keys and having difficulty multitasking after chemo may be helped by journaling. A study on patients with renal cell carcinoma found that expressive writing improved cancer-related symptoms primarily through short-term improvements in cognitive functioning.
  • Wound healing.
  • Depression.

Of course, studies don't necessarily tell us whether or not you personally could benefit from writing, Also, this is a hard area to study objectively. Best bet? If it helps you, try it.

Types and Methods for Expressive Writing

Before beginning your journal ask yourself: "Who is your audience?" Are you writing for yourself alone privately, for your family, or do you wish to share with the greater cancer community? Also, ask yourself if you would prefer writing in a journal by hand or if typing at the computer or even your smartphone would work best. Some types of journals include:

  • Daily thought journals.
  • Gratitude journals - This article discusses how to maintain a gratitude journal.
  • Online journals such as blogs, or a Caring Bridge site.
  • Some people prefer journaling that is not focused primarily on writing such as art journaling.

A few articles to help you choose a journal and get started include:

Tips for Writing Your Cancer Journal

  • As the Nike commercial says: Just Do It!
  • Try to write every day, even if for only 5 minutes.
  • Make sure to date your entries.
  • Find a place to keep your journal(s) so they won't get into the wrong hands.
  • Make your area comfortable when writing, perhaps light a candle, try some aromatherapy, or play inspirational music.

Ideas for Writing About Your Cancer Journey

Here are some questions and thoughts to stimulate your thoughts when you don't know where to start:

  • Who has supported you through therapy?
  • I am thankful for... (fill in the blank.)
  • If you hear a quote or song lyrics that resonate with you, write them down and record your thoughts about how the words affect you or portray what you are feeling.
  • Try "stream-of-consciousness" writing - Take 10 minutes and write non-stop (without editing) about anything that comes to mind.
  • Think of a particular time during your cancer treatment. What were you feeling? What were you thinking? How did that time impact you, your family, your friends?
  • What silver linings have you experienced?
  • What would you do differently, what would you do the same?
  • What are your greatest fears?
  • What have you learned?
  • What's the funniest thing that happened to you during cancer treatment?
  • What positive experiences would you not have had if you never had cancer?
  • Write a letter you won't send - If you have words that you are carrying inside you, but can't express them to another because they won't be receptive, or are no longer living, write an unsent letter.
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