How Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

How Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

by Carol Celeste

Whether you’ve just received the diagnosis, you’re in the midst of treatment, or you’re acclimating to post-treatment life, cancer can impose a great deal of stress at any point along your journey. It’s well known that excessive stress is bad for your health, but it is especially so when your health is already compromised by a disease like cancer. 

Numerous strategies for reducing harmful stress are at your disposal, but there’s one method you probably already practice to some extent without realizing its stress-reducing capabilities. It can be done practically anywhere, and it requires minimal equipment. I’m talking about writing – more specifically, expressive writing. 

Proven Benefits  

Expressive writing goes beyond your standard journal writing. It requires deep self-exploration to unearth your innermost thoughts and feelings. In the 1980s, James W. Pennebaker, PhD, conducted a study to evaluate the benefits of this type of writing. His research revealed that by putting their deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic life events in writing, study participants experienced physical changes that indicated a reduction in stress. His test subjects also required fewer doctor visits and showed improved immune system function following their expressive writing sessions. 

Dr. Pennebaker’s study has spawned numerous research trials to evaluate the effect of expressive writing on people with varied diseases, including cancer. These trials have uncovered many physical and emotional benefits. Several medical centers and universities have even conducted their own studies to examine the impact of expressive writing on the progress of cancer, and many now offer writing 4 programs to aid survivors in coping with the disease.

7 Ways Expressive Writing Can Help You Cope with Cancer

  • Exploring your inner thoughts and feelings cleanses your mind during this overwhelming time.
  • Writing helps you make sense of present and past experiences, inducing a calming effect that improves your mood and outlook.
  • Writing allows you to keep a record of your experience as you live it. You can refer to it later as a testament to your courage and stamina.
  • Writing about your fears weakens their power. 
  • Writing reduces stress for better overall health.
  • Some days, writing may be the only creative act you are physically able to perform when you’re itching to express yourself. 
  • Expressive writing is an inexpensive way to organize and compile your thoughts anytime, anywhere. And materials for doing so are easily accessible.

Your writing should cover the good, the bad, and everything in between.

The Good with the Bad  

Everyone experiences cancer differently, but most cancer survivors share some common concerns. Maybe you’re wondering “Why me?”, or worrying about the cost of treatment, or maybe you’re wrestling with spiritual questions. Many people benefit most from writing about these things that they don’t want to face. 


However, you should also write about the positives you’ve encountered during your illness. You may have learned how loved you are by those around you, even people you didn’t feel as close to. New acquaintances may have become lifelong friends. Your experience and self-exploration may have given you a better understanding of who you really are and led you to tackle new activities. Your writing should cover the good, the bad, and everything in between.

Since you will be hashing out uncomfortable feelings through your writing, it is natural to feel down for a brief period just after a writing session. That will pass, however, and you should eventually feel the healing power of your work. That said, if these negative feelings last for days after your writing session, you may need to seek professional counseling to help you cope with the emotions that come with cancer. 

Remember that you write to heal, not to cure. This type of writing offers many benefits that lead to improved health, but it does not cure illness. 

Lifelong Benefits  

When you find yourself facing other difficult life situations down the road, your experience with expressive writing can help you cope with those issues as you coped with cancer. All you need is something to write on, something to write with, and, when possible, a quiet place to delve deep into your innermost self.

Carol CelesteCarol Celeste, a Health-Script: Therapy through Writing certificate holder, is the founder of Writing to Heal, Writing to Grow (, which offers online writing classes for better health and personal growth and licenses therapeutic writing workshops for healthcare professionals and the general public.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2018.