Journaling Your Way Through Cancer

Journaling Your Way Through Cancer

How You Can Use Expressive Writing to Promote Emotional Healing

by Alison Snow, PhD, LCSW-R, OSW-C and Emily Rubin, MFA

Journaling can be therapeutic for cancer survivors. Research shows that expressive writing can help reduce side effects, improve quality of life, and decrease medical visits for people with cancer. Writing can help you to cope with your illness. During times of distress, it can be emotionally healing.

Expressive writing can take on many forms. You can write email, letters, blogs, journals, social media posts, creative essays, poetry, and fiction. Writing – through a blog, social media platform, or email newsletter – can also be a helpful way to keep your extended family and friends updated on your treatment and recovery.

Journaling is one form of writing that can be particularly beneficial. Journaling gives you an opportunity to reflect on what happened during your day. Writing down the things that are worrying you can actually reduce your anxiety. This can be particularly beneficial before bedtime, as it might just help you sleep better.
When people think of journaling, they tend to picture someone writing down a daily chronicle of their life. But journaling can be much more than a personal diary. Let’s explore a few different methods of journaling you can try out.

  • Art journaling: Draw or scrapbook what you are feeling.
  • Dream journaling: Write down the first two or three words that come into your mind when you wake up; these words can help you recall your dreams.
  • Gratitude journaling: Write down what you are grateful for each day. This allows you to focus on the positive aspects of your life.
  • Humor journaling: Find the humor in a situation and write about it. Comedic outlets can help improve your mood.
  • Line-a-day journaling: Limit yourself to writing just one sentence per day.
  • Stream-of-consciousness writing: Write down everything that comes to your mind. It’s OK if it comes out nonsensical.

There is no right or wrong way to write or journal. Try not to focus on grammar, spelling, or sentence structure when you are journaling or writing for emotional healing. Just write what you feel.

Check to see if your cancer center offers writing or journaling workshops. Many of these have moved online due to COVID-19. If there’s not one available, you can check with local community agencies that might offer this type of program, or join an online journaling group.

However, you do not need to attend a class or workshop to start writing. Just look for ways to incorporate expressive writing in your everyday routine:

  • Keep a journal of your cancer journey. You can write each day before bed to help you process what happened that day. Or just pick any time that works for you and your schedule.
  • Blog about your experiences. Although this is a more public form of expression, it can be a way to build community and share your story with others facing similar situations. Or, you can try a website like CaringBridge.org, which allows you to create your own personal blog to share your cancer journey with friends and family.
  • Take a few minutes each day to just write what’s on your mind without censoring yourself or worrying about grammar and spelling.
  • Write letters to friends or family members. You can tell them things that might be difficult for you to say aloud.
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You can experience the pleasure and emotional healing of writing, even during cancer. All you need is a pen and paper – or a computer – and a few quiet minutes to express yourself.

Give It a Try!

Are you ready to give expressive writing a try? You can make up your own writing prompt, or pick one of the prompts below to get started.

  • Write down the story that is told over and again at family gatherings.
  • Tell the story of who you were named after.
  • Describe what is on your refrigerator. Magnets, notes, photographs?
  • Did you procrastinate on an important task this week? Did you finally finish something you’ve been trying to do for a long time? Write about it!

Dr. Alison Snow (left) is the director of Cancer Supportive Services at Mount Sinai Downtown Cancer Centers in New York, NY. An oncology social worker, she oversees support and wellness programming, including writing and journaling workshops, for cancer survivors. Emily Rubin (right) is a cancer survivor and author whose fiction and essays have been published in many literary journals. Her debut novel, STALINA, was a selection of the Amazon Debut Novel Award Contest. She also runs the Write Treatment Workshops for Mount Sinai.

Seek professional help if journaling or writing about your experiences and emotions leaves you more upset than relieved. Consider speaking with an oncology social worker or mental health professional.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2020.

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