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Writing - It's Good for You

by Nancy Pierce Morgan, MA

Wellness image

“I can handle the physical side of cancer,” says a woman at a support group. “It’s the emotional side – worrying about my young daughter’s future – that is so hard.” Feelings like this are frequently expressed by survivors, and for good reason. A cancer diagnosis presents unknowns in all aspects of life. Health, work, relationships, appearance, and identity are all called into question. The emotional burden of cancer can be overwhelming. Knowing how and when to express emotions and the benefits of self expression may help.

Habits of expression are shaped by family, culture, and circumstance. Many of us are taught to keep a stiff upper lip, to not dwell on problems. In the case of cancer, concerned family and friends may also be reluctant to discuss it. Yet people with cancer want to address all aspects of healing to ensure the best treatment outcome, and studies continually show that expressing feelings may contribute to good health.

How can cultural norms and family expectations be respected while finding relief from the emotional impact of cancer? Writing is one particularly accessible and tested method. Writing can be private, yet highly effective in helping people articulate thoughts and feelings about cancer find relief in communicating those feelings. Research suggests this relief may come in the form of improved sleep quality, reduced pain and symptom awareness, improved communication, and fewer doctor visits.

As an example of how many cancer centers incorporate therapeutic writing, at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center where I work, writing is introduced in several ways:

  • weekly writing workshops
  • the distribution of writing prompts
  • research on writing and health
  • the annual publication of Lombardi Voices, an anthology of writing by people with cancer and caregivers
  • scheduled readings
  • offering blank journals and information about writing benefits at the new-patient orientation
Author of Article photo

Nancy Morgan

The expression of thoughts and feelings is encouraged as part of good health. Universal themes related to nature, family, and identity are introduced as catalysts for writing. Expressive writing is free of academic rules, competition, or critique. Writing a story from life experience, whether shared or kept private, can be cathartic and life-affirming. Positive feedback about the benefits of weekly writing from participants in writing programs at Lombardi was so consistent we decided to contribute to the growing body of evidence with our own study, published in The Oncologist.

Twenty years of research in controlled laboratory settings indicates writing may contribute to improved physical and emotional health. Our study moved research from the lab to the waiting room of a busy cancer clinic. We invited people with leukemia and lymphoma in our hospital waiting room to participate in the study. Participants completed surveys and responded to the question, “How has cancer changed you, and how do you feel about those changes?”

Study results suggest there may be a link between those who felt writing changed the way they thought about their cancer and an improved physical quality of life (reported weeks later in a followup interview). Most participants described a pattern of emotional change during their cancer experience, starting with the shock of diagnosis, then moving to acceptance, gratitude, and descriptions of life improvements in the areas of family, self-care, spirituality, and work. As one participant wrote, “I don’t like to talk about the cancer even though I feel like I should. Writing helps to get the feelings out of me.”

Whether you use writing to take a break from cancer or to confront cancer directly, writing becomes a surprisingly effective tool for self expression and simply feeling better.

Try It!

  • Write for a respite from cancer: Trees often figure prominently in childhood memories as a source of strength, beauty, shade, protection, or games. Write about a tree that was a part of your childhood and why it was important to you.
  • Write to confront cancer: Answer the question, “How has cancer changed you, and how do you feel about those changes?”
  • Reflect: After completing your writing exercise, reflect on how the writing makes you feel during, immediately after, and later that day.

Your thoughts and feelings about writing can help you decide if writing is a useful coping tool for you.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Nancy Morgan is a writing clinician and director of the Arts and Humanities program at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.