Journaling with Cancer

Journaling with Cancer

Don’t let these common myths keep you from experiencing the joy and emotional healing that can happen when you journal through cancer.

by Sharon K. Swanson, MFA, MPA

As a writer working in a hospital, I have seen firsthand how intimidating a cancer survivor’s list of “shoulds” can be. That’s why I prefer to offer journaling as a comfort or a distraction during and after cancer treatment, not as one more thing you “should” be doing as a cancer survivor. 

I believe that journaling – the simple act of filling a page – can be a pleasurable experience, like listening to music or coloring with crayons. In fact, I often think of a child’s coloring pages as a sort of visual diary. I would love to see adults experience the same kind of contentment and focus in their journals that children exhibit when they are coloring.

However, there are some common myths about journaling that often keep people from experiencing the joy and emotional healing that can happen when you journal. Here’s a look at my top five journaling myths – busted. 

Myth #1: I need a fancy schmancy new journal to show I am serious about this journaling stuff.
Actually, a plain composition notebook in a favorite color and in a size that fits your lifestyle is more likely to be used than an expensive journal. You may find that a bound journal kept on a bedside table works best for you, while another person may be happy with a small notebook that slips easily into a purse. 

A journal can be so much more than a daily diary.

Myth #2: I should write for twenty minutes at the same time every single day.
Unless you’re the kind of person who thrives on routine and structure, anything goes here too. Some people find that writing in their journal first thing in the morning can focus their minds for the day ahead. Others enjoy looking back over their day by journaling just before bed, clearing the decks for a good night’s sleep. I tend to write whenever I have something on my mind. I may go days or weeks without writing. Other times, I may grab my journal several times a day as thoughts pop into my head that I want to jot down. I always keep a pen and paper handy, but others may prefer a computer or smartphone.

Myth #3: I should be documenting my illness.
Certainly, some survivors find comfort, distraction, and a measure of control in documenting their cancer experience. However, a journal can be so much more than a daily diary. Your journal can include 

  • A gratitude list
  • A doodle pad
  • A scrapbook of photos, cartoons, or inspiring quotes
  • A list of questions to ask your doctor
  • To-do lists
  • Poetry or scripture
  • Funny family stories or jokes
  • Letters to family and friends who are far away
  • A guestbook
  • A dreamcatcher
  • Your options are endless.
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Myth #4: I should write about my emotions on difficult days.
Sure, it can sometimes help to write through difficult issues. I often find that I reach an understanding of my own feelings while I am writing about them. However, sometimes it may be helpful to write about something that distracts you from those issues until you are ready to address them. Instead, you can write about a special time or place that represents happiness to you, using all your senses to take you back to that moment. Maybe these are the emotions you want to write about today. 

Myth #5: I should write to document my experience for others.
The journaling program at Duke University Hospital is called “Write for You.” And that’s what I would encourage you to do – write only for yourself. You always have the option to share your writing if you choose. However, you could look at your journal as a safe container, a box in which you can discard painful experiences and a treasure chest where you store precious moments so you can revisit them time and again.

What are you waiting for? 

Pick up a pen, a pencil, or a crayon, and write your name in your journal. Put today’s date at the top of your first page. You have begun. 

Sharon Swanson

Sharon Swanson, an award-winning essayist and documentary film producer, is the manager of Arts & Health and Volunteer Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2019.