When Life Hurts, Writing Helps
by Sharon A. Bray, EDD
“We’ll write for twenty minutes,” the workshop leader said. She passed a basket around the room, filled with folded papers, a single line of poetry printed on each. “Choose one,” she instructed. “Whatever words you read will be your prompt.”
I’d come to the workshop after completing radiation treatment for earlystage breast cancer two weeks earlier. Despite an intensive week of writing, I had avoided any mention of cancer. To write about it was an admission of vulnerability. Denial was a comfortable overcoat, and I had no desire to discard it.
My fingers hovered over the basket. I reached in, fished out a paper, and read the words on it: The hospital corridor was dimly lit. I dutifully opened my notebook and stared at the blank page. Mixed emotions bubbled up behind my composed exterior. I slowly copied the words onto the page, stalling. Suddenly, the next sentence formed in my head. Words pushed and shoved about my brain in a race for the page. I wrote quickly, describing the agony of the daily wait in the radiology department and the tremor of anxiety as the technician summoned me for treatment. Ms. Bray? This way please.
Writing offers a refuge, the safety to express our shock and confusion and the feelings we find so difficult to say aloud.
The instructor called time. I stopped, flushed and breathless, but feeling lighter, as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. In the weeks afterward, I continued to write, filling one journal, then another, describing the moment I heard the “C” word, my fears, the cacophony of confusing emotions. The fog that had enveloped me in the preceding weeks began to clear. I felt more like myself. When I stumbled across the research on writing and health a few weeks later, I smiled. It confirmed what I had experienced. When life hurts, writing helps.
Writing offers a refuge, the safety to express our shock and confusion and the feelings we find so difficult to say aloud. Translating emotions into words makes them less overwhelming. We begin to understand them. Novelist and cancer survivor Alice Hoffman, in a New York Times article in 2000, described the importance of writing during cancer: “What I was looking for during 10 months of chemotherapy and radiation was a way to make sense out of sorrow and loss.”
Alice Hoffman expressed what poets and novelists have always acknowledged. Writing is a way of healing. “Give sorrow words,” William Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth. “The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.” Our great writers also implicitly understood what research now confirms: the most beneficial kind of writing tells a story. “When we begin to see our suffering as a story,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her famous diaries, “we are saved.”
Stories are uniquely human. They help us make sense of life. The myths and legends told by the ancients as they gathered around campfires helped them to make sense of the world, to find reasons for things they did not understand. So do our stories of cancer. “Stories,” Anatole Broyard wrote in Intoxicated by My Illness, “are antibodies against illness and pain.” Writing and telling our stories eases the isolation of cancer and reminds us we are not alone.
First, find a quiet time to write. Set
a timer for 10 minutes. Write until
the time is up. Here are some prompts
to get you started:
⇒ Begin with, “When the doctor said, ‘cancer,’ I … ”
⇒ Write about hair – having it and losing it.
⇒ Write a letter to your body. One cancer survivor I know wrote a love letter to her missing lung.
⇒ Imagine cancer as a character. Talk back to it.
⇒ Write about fear. What keeps you awake at night?
⇒ What are you grateful for?
Through writing, the detrimental effects of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions are weakened. Writing stories or poems out of your cancer experience helps you make sense of your illness, find new meaning in your life, and reclaim your voice, which is sometimes silenced in the wake of a cancer diagnosis.
Your stories matter. Whether you write in a journal, on a computer, or on an online blog, your stories are testimony to the uniqueness of your life and your experience. “This is my life,” our stories say. “This happened to me. This matters.”
Why not give writing a try? It can help you navigate the rough waters of cancer treatment and recovery.
Write your way into healing. Write your way through cancer.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Dr. Sharon Bray is the author of two books on writing during cancer. Her blog, WritingThroughCancer.com, features weekly writing prompts for men and women living with cancer.
Everyone has a unique story to share about their cancer experience. Visit copingmag.com/share_your_story to send us your stories and poems.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2011.