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Healing with Words

by Diana M. Raab

Inspiration image

During my breast cancer journey, my lifeline was three-fold: immediate healthcare, a supportive family, and the creative arts as a source of strength. For a long time, the arts have been associated with relieving tension and fears. Creative expression is a healthier alternative to keeping your emotions bottled up inside. Author Virginia Woolf confessed that she wrote in her diary “to bring order to the chaos in her life.”

Those of us who have been touched by cancer know there are no magic wands to take the cancer away, but we can try to cope with our situation and reduce stress by finding our passions, whether it is writing stories, crafting poems, journaling, drawing, painting, or sculpting. If writing is your passion, you understand how the very act of putting your words on the page is a productive way to ground you in your experience and give voice to your feelings. At times, you may find it difficult to express how you feel, but if you document your cancer journey, you will soon discover that your writing shines with power and beauty.

The simple act of moving your pen across the page can be soothing and meditative.

I have long understood the healing qualities of writing. Thus, it was no surprise that the first thing I did when returning home after my abnormal mammogram was pull out my journal. From then on, I made a point to write early in the morning, when my thoughts had the most clarity. It’s not essential to have a writing routine, but most writing instructors will advocate some sort of regularity, particularly in the beginning. In the writing classes I teach, I tell my students that journaling is a reality check. Writing about the traumas in our lives is not only cathartic, but it can help provide answers to mysterious questions. Journaling brings you face to face with your own truths and with what has happened to you. The simple act of moving your pen across the page can be soothing and meditative.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of journaling your feelings. After my surgery, my plastic surgeon encouraged me to write every day. He even asked me to mail him my musings. Because of their intimacy, there were certain things I preferred not to share. So in addition to the journal written especially for him, I kept one for myself.

My journal also included poems crafted during and after my breast cancer journey. One poem in particular was inspired by a passion that began while I was in the hospital recovering from my breast surgery. All the beautiful flower arrangements that filled my hospital room had died by the time I was ready to go home – all except for one white phalaenopsis orchid. In my heart, I took this as a message. I believed that like the orchid, I would also survive. I brought the plant home and placed it on my bedside table. As time went on, I became increasingly intrigued by its magic. Unlike any other flowering plant I had owned, it seemed as if it would bloom forever.

In some parts of the world, orchids have been transformed into talismans, amulets, and good luck charms to ward off evil spirits, improve health, and help destiny take a more positive course. I’d like to think they work, for it has already been eight years since my recovery. In many ways, it seems like yesterday, but in others, it could have been a century ago.

The journey of my diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer was life-altering. Now, when the fear gets overwhelming, my best remedy is to direct my creative energy to writing. I once had a writer friend who said, “When it hurts, write harder.” Those words remain on a Post-It above my computer.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Diana Raab is a nurse, author, poet, and breast cancer and multiple myeloma survivor. Learn more about Diana at

Excerpted with permission from Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, by Diana M. Raab, copyright © 2010.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.