The Benefits of Therapeutic Writing for Cancer Survivors
by Ali Zidel Meyers, MSW
Eleven years ago, I participated in a writing and healing group at Stanford University that would serve as an integral part of my treatment and recovery from cancer. Weeks after colon surgery and just before the start of chemotherapy, I attended my first session, which was led by a wonderful teacher and facilitator named Dr. Sharon Bray. I showed up bewildered, overwhelmed, isolated, and unsure. Yet, over time, I gained clarity, peace, comfort, community, and understanding.
I was so enthralled by the power of writing and healing that I began to envision myself leading groups like this someday. Already having a background in social work, group therapy, writing, and teaching, I completed additional training. In 2012, when Dr. Bray moved out of Silicon Valley, I was asked to take over the Stanford group. Today, I continue to lead newly diagnosed and long-term survivors through their own processes of discovery, healing, and growth, using writing as a therapeutic tool.
Participants often enter the group soft and fragile. They are literally fighting for their lives. They may be overwhelmed with the side effects of treatment, the uncertainty of their diagnosis, and the (often) tumultuous impact of cancer on their lives. Under these circumstances, it can be quite difficult to show up and express what’s going on inside; yet, this is the very thing that often leads to great healing, comfort, and transformation.
Writing Your Cancer Journey
Tips to Help You Get Started
If you would like to give healing writing a try, here are a few tips to help you get started.
On Your Own
• Keep a journal. If you’re too tired to write a full entry on a given day, jot a list of three to five things for which you’re grateful.
• Write yourself a “how to survive cancer” guide. It can be as simple as a short poem or page of instructions, or as complex as a chapter book.
• Check with your local cancer treatment center or cancer nonprofits to find out what complementary programs they provide. Many hospitals and clinics are expanding their offerings to include healing writing.
• If traveling to a group writing session is not possible, consider joining an online writing group.
Having a safe, supportive space to explore and share feelings empowers survivors to not only make meaning of what’s happening, but to shape and “author” it.
The power of shaping one’s own narrative cannot be underestimated. Having a safe, supportive space to explore and share feelings empowers survivors to not only make meaning of what’s happening, but to shape and “author” it. In our group, I invite participants to respond to writing prompts, then those who want to can read their writing aloud. The group responds with positive feedback, which helps the writer claim his or her experience and voice, as well as reduce isolation. Writers in the group feel seen, heard, and understood, which may be a contrast to their lives outside the group where they may feel pressure to act a certain way for the benefit of their families, friends, or even their medical team. They also experience the resonance of their writing with others. Though the responses are all unique, themes emerge, and each writer tends to feel affirmed in the process.
The goal is not to change people’s views of their cancer experience or survivorship, but it does help them move through, make sense of, shape, and claim these journeys. I have noticed a transformation in most participants through the course of the group. They may initially show up confused, lonely, and hesitant, but as they journey through healing, they form rich friendships, powerful wisdom, and deep understanding. Cancer can be a transformative experience, and the writing group shepherds people through the aspects of the journey that may not be addressed in their conventional medical treatment.
I consider it is a privilege to do this work. I love witnessing the power of writing to unlock people who are struggling emotionally and connect them to one other. I love witnessing someone move from a place of confusion to a place of understanding. I love witnessing people discovering the power and creativity inside them to shape their stories and their lives. I am grateful for the opportunity to give back to others what was so graciously shared with me when I was facing cancer.
Cancer brings many questions and changes. Survivors often find themselves swimming through a sea of unknowns – questioning everything from treatment options to their own existence. Writing can help you navigate the journey.
Ali Zidel Meyers is a cancer survivor, writer, mother, and teacher. She leads an ongoing workshop, called Writing Your Cancer Journey, at the Stanford Supportive Care Center in Stanford, CA. Ali has taught writing for over 15 years and is currently working on a memoir about her experience as a young colon cancer survivor. To learn more about Ali, visit holy-mess.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2019.