15 Dec Journaling Your Cancer Journey Benefits of Expressive Writing for People with Cancer
Written by Lynne Eldridge, MD
Journaling, or “expressive writing” is a creative and emotional outlet for many people with cancer. In addition to being a way to chronicle your journey and clarify your thoughts, some people have found that writing is a good way to find the silver linings, or the positive things that happen amidst the heartache and pain of cancer. Journaling may help people cope with the emotional distress of cancer, especially expressive writing that focuses on the positive aspects of the experience. Physically, studies looking at at improvement in quality of life in people with cancer who journal have found that an improvement in cognitive function may underly some of this benefit. On the downside, expressive writing that leads to rumination could have a negative impact on well-being. We will take a look at some of the methods people use for journaling, tips on getting started, and some ideas and writing prompts to get your words flowing.
It’s important to make a quick note that even lifelong non-writers often enjoy the practice of journaling, but it’s not for everyone. If the thought of writing doesn’t appeal, there are many other creative outlets that some people with cancer have found helpful ranging from art therapy, to music therapy, to pet therapy.
Reasons to Write When You Have Cancer
Before beginning, it’s helpful to look at some of the reasons why you may wish to journal your cancer journey. Some of these may be important to you, whereas others won’t really fit. What’s important is that you write for reasons that are important to you alone. Some of these include:
• To relieve stress
• To chronicle your journey. When you are in the midst of treatment it may seem that you’ll always remember these moments, but that’s not always the case. Having a record of what you have been through and your thoughts along the way can be priceless as you look back.
• To clarify your thoughts. People often ask those with cancer how they are really feeling, and answering can be hard when you don’t really know yourself. Taking the time to put your feelings in words can sometimes help clarify those thoughts .
• To help you let go. There are many reasons to become irritated, angry, and resentful when coping with cancer. Not only are you facing a disease you don’t deserve, but inevitably family or friends, especially those who have not been exposed to cancer themselves, fail us. Learning to let go to live with cancer isn’t easy, but can help free you up to focus on things you do have some control over.
• To find the silver linings. You may have noticed that many people who have lived with cancer change in positive ways amidst the trauma. Studies now tell us that cancer often changes people for the better when it comes to having greater empathy and appreciation for life. Journaling can help you find those silver linings along the way.
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• To leave a legacy. Some people journal their thoughts on topics they want to make sure they share with loved ones while they have the time. Even if you have a cancer with a very good prognosis, many people have found that when faced with the threat to life that’s cancer, they are better able to share their deeper thoughts and feelings that at times when life is going smoothly.
• To write a book. You wouldn’t be the first person who wrote out thoughts on their cancer journey and ended up publishing them in a book. A good example includes 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, but those that have been done clearly show some benefits. Of course, studies don’t necessarily tell us whether or not you personally could benefit from writing, but your heart will probably let you know. If it makes you feel better to put words on paper, keep doing it. If you find it stressful, another use of your time might be better.
Emotional and Psychological Benefits
According to a 2015 review looking at women with breast cancer, 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.
It may be the type of writing rather than journaling itself that determines how beneficial the effect of journaling. A 2019 study looking at Chinese women with breast cancer found that journaling improved quality of life, but when broken down into groups that wrote about either the positive aspects of their cancer experience, reported cancer-related facts, or wrote about the stress and coping effects, the “positive writing” was associated with a greater improvement in quality of life.
Though it’s hard to study the social impact of journaling, we know that communication is crucial for those living with cancer. If writing can help you clarify your thoughts so that you can better communicate your feelings and needs to loved ones and health care providers, there’s a good chance it may help.
There have now been several studies looking at how journaling may benefit people physically while living with cancer.
Though “chemobrain” is a symptom often associated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy to the brain, and simply the stress of cancer can contribute to these symptoms of difficulty multitasking and losing car keys. A 2014 study looking at people with renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) found that expressive writing improved cancer-related symptoms and physical functioning primarily through short-term improvements in cognitive functioning.
In one study looking at older adults (aged 64 to 97), writing expressively for 20 minutes each day was associated with better wound healing.
It’s important to note that journaling may also have draw backs or lead to poorer psychological functioning in some cases. For those who find themselves ruminating about ways they’ve been hurt by others and hanging on to resentment, expressive writing could potentially have a negative impact on well-being.
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
• 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
Selecting a journal is an important first step, and often the biggest hurdle. Once you have your journal and a favorite writing pen, you’re ready to begin whenever you wish.
Tips for Writing Your Cancer Journal Once you’re ready, a few tips may help ensure you are successful:
• 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
The second hardest step in journaling (after purchasing your journal) is simply to make the first entry. Instead of worrying about what the focus of your journal should be, you may want to check out some of these following questions and thoughts to stimulate your thoughts. While one of the studies noted above found that positive writing had the greatest effect on quality of life, people aren’t statistics. Write about what matters the most to you.
• 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 to 20 minutes and write non-stop (without editing) about absolutely anything that comes to mind. Your ideas don’t have to be connected. You may be surprised to see the thoughts and ideas you have on paper!
• 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, and/or 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.
If you are looking for further ideas, reading the blogs of others with cancer may stimulate your own thoughts and feelings.
A Word From Verywell
Journaling may have some benefits for people with cancer, but the greatest benefit may have nothing to do with your emotional or physical well-being at the time. Preserving memories, leaving a legacy, and finding the silver linings in your journey can be priceless not only for yourself, but for your loved ones as well.
Editors Note: Dr. Eldridge has undergraduate degrees from Stanford University and Bethel University where she studied chemistry and music. She earned her medical degree from the University of Minnesota Medical School and completed her residency at the University of Minnesota Hospitals and Clinics. This article was reprinted with permission from VeryWell Health as originally published on November 18, 2019.