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Write Your Way through Cancer

by David Tabatsky

Wellness image

(Illustration by Flash Rosenberg)

Expressive writing can be a wonder­ful tool for clarifying your thoughts, relieving stress, and improving communication skills. Each of these benefits alone is a great reason to write. Who can argue against clearing up the haze of our daily overload of informa­tion, stimulation, and trepidation? Who can object to writing their way to relax­ation? Who can rail against the benefits of better communication?

Twenty years of research, including a study conducted at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown Univer­sity in Washington, DC, and published in The Oncologist, reveals that dealing with our deepest thoughts and feelings through expressive writing can contrib­ute to improved physical and emotional health. For example, study participants who completed just one 20-minute writing session reported improvement in their general outlook on cancer and on their physical quality of life.

TIP: Play your favorite music as you write.

Author of Article photo

David Tabatsky

What if writing could do the same for you? What if you began expressing yourself in writing and that led you to communicate more effectively with your family, friends, and doctors? What if writing relieved some of your stress and helped you feel more in control of your situation? What if other people in your life were inspired by how well you’re coping with your challenges through writing and that helped them cope with their own?

Staying connected to your true self through expressive writing allows you to be present in three tenses at once: past, present, and future. Together, they represent one state of being, of living in the moment. Through expressive writing, you have the chance to get in touch with everything you’re dealing with – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

TIP: Read your writing aloud.

Two words can get you started: I am. I begin all of my writing workshops by prompting participants to describe them­selves, beginning with these two words, because in times of great change and stress, our sense of self is turned upside down and we question the way we pre­viously identified ourselves. Your “I am” description can start at your emotional center, or it may take off from a more philosophical place. It may incorporate a wide-angle view or focus on the minutiae of the moment. There are no rules. But there are compelling rea­sons for getting in touch with yourself through writing, especially when your very existence is being challenged.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, this is the time to focus on you. If you’re a caretaker, focusing on your­self now and again is a good idea, too. Writing down your fears, your ques­tions, and your dreams will enable real communication with loved ones, friends, and doctors. Eventually, you may wish to share your writing with others, inspiring them with your per­sonal perspective.

TIP: Leave notebooks around the house
and fill them with your thoughts.

Right now, you may be feeling too raw to imagine sharing your innermost thoughts in this way. You may simply feel intimidated. The idea of writing may rekindle a nightmare called high school English class, during which your teacher made you write down that yucky stuff called “feelings” in a journal, and you forced yourself to produce just enough to secure a passing grade.

Relax. There are no grades to be earned here, only benefits to be ex­perienced. You just have to give your­self permission to express how you feel. This is your chance to get started. Each of us needs to communi­cate and share our feelings, no matter how tough that may be.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

David Tabatsky is the author of Write for Life: Communicating Your Way Through Cancer and has coauthored Chicken Soup for the Soul’s The Cancer Book, The Intelligent Divorce, and Beautiful Old Dogs, among many others. He teaches writing workshops at cancer centers around the country. Learn more about David at

For more inspiration and writing resources, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2014.