How to Cope - Survivor Writing Your Way Through Cancer

Woman writing in journalWriting can be therapeutic during cancer treatment and beyond. It can provide an opportunity for self-expression and serve as a helpful distraction. Research shows that, for people with cancer,   expressive writing and journaling can reduce side effects, improve quality of life, and lessen medical visits. Writing can help you cope with your illness. During times of distress, it can be emotionally healing. 

Writing comes in many forms: email, letters, blogs, journaling, social media posts, creative or expressive writing, poetry, fiction. Writing – through a blog, social media platform, or email newsletter – can also be a useful way to keep your extended family and friends updated on your treatment and recovery. Websites like CaringBridge.org and MyLifeLine.org allow you to create a personal blog to share your cancer journey with friends and family. You can make your blog public or private. 

Journaling is one form of writing that can be particularly beneficial. Journaling offers you an opportunity to reflect on your day and your feelings or emotions. By writing down what worries you, you can reduce your anxiety. This can be particularly helpful before bedtime, clearing your mind may improve your sleep. 

When people think of journaling, they tend to picture someone writing down a daily chronicle of their life. Journaling can be so much more than a daily diary.

When people think of journaling, they tend to picture someone writing down a daily chronicle of their life. Journaling can be so much more than a daily diary. Below are a number of ways to journal and tips for trying them:

Art journaling: Draw or scrapbook what you are feeling.
Dream journaling: Write down the first two or three words that come into your mind when you wake up; these words can help you to recall your dreams.
Gratitude journaling: Write down the things you are grateful for. This enables you to focus your attention on positive aspects of your life.
Humor journaling: Find the humor in a situation and write about it. Comedic outlets can help improve your mood.
Line-a-day journaling: Limit yourself to just one sentence per day.
Stream-of-consciousness journaling: Write down whatever comes to your mind as you are thinking it. It’s OK if it comes out nonsensical. 

There is no wrong way to journal or write. Try not to worry about grammar, spelling, or sentence structure when you are journaling or doing expressive writing. You can even make up your own writing prompts; write about your hopes, fears, expectations, desires, frustrations, goals – whatever is on your mind!

Check to see if your cancer center offers writing or journaling workshops. If not, you can check with local community agencies that might offer this type of program, or join an online journaling group. But remember, you do not need to attend a class or workshop to start writing. Look for simple ways to incorporate writing into your regular routine. Here are a few ideas:

• Keep a journal of your cancer journey. You can write each day before bed to help process what happened that day. Or pick any time that works for your schedule.
• Blog about your experiences. Although this is a more public form of expression, it can be a way to build community and share your story with others facing similar situations.
• Take a few minutes to freewrite without censoring yourself or worrying about grammar and spelling.

Anyone can experience the pleasure, and the benefits, of writing during cancer. All you need is a pen and paper, or a computer, and a few quiet minutes to express yourself.

Dr. Alison SnowDr. Alison Snow is the assistant director of Cancer Supportive Services at Mount Sinai Downtown Cancer Centers in New York, NY. An oncology social worker, she oversees support and wellness programming, including writing and journaling workshops, for cancer survivors.

Seek professional help if journaling or writing about your experiences and emotions leaves you more upset than relieved. Consider speaking with an oncology social worker or mental health professional.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2017.