Expressive Writing for Adults with Cancer
by Nancy Morgan
“You want me to do what?”
Convincing people with cancer to write about their thoughts and feelings as a coping strategy can be a hard sell. From that first elementary school essay, for many people, writing means deadlines, criticism, comparison, rejection. “I can’t write,” they say. “I’m not a writer. No thanks.”
Expressive writing is different, as it evokes unique and personal perspectives on life. Feelings, especially those related to a health crisis, often stay buried, unexamined, causing distress. Could the simple act of writing alleviate discomfort? Research suggests it can. It’s as easy as putting pen to paper, or fingers to a keyboard, to manage stress, make sense of new and confusing experiences, and find emotional balance.
For some survivors, the post-treatment period is the most difficult. Emotional trauma takes its toll. Interactions with dedicated medical and support staff, who have now become like family, happen less often after treatment. The change can be distressing. But writing about things like beloved childhood memories, your favorite places to travel, or activities that inspire you can help you remember who you were before cancer.
Could the simple act of writing alleviate discomfort? Research suggests it can.
Inhibitions about writing vanish when people are offered the chance to say what they really feel. Forget the stiff upper lip motto. Let it out.
In one of my writing clinics, a woman in treatment asked, “I’m supposed to write about positive things about cancer, right?” She was wearing a t-shirt covered with smiley faces. I offered a different approach: “It might be more helpful to write about how you really feel. Giving yourself permission to let out fear, anger, and dreams set aside can be a great gift.” She appeared relieved.
Research suggests that being compelled to write about feelings other than those we truly have isn’t helpful. Withholding what we need to say can increase stress. So, write about what is on your mind with clarity and full intensity. No one else needs to see it. If you decide to tear it up afterward, the benefits of processing your emotions through writing remain. The body relaxes. And the cathartic release that often follows offers great incentive to keep writing.
When you’re feeling stressed, go easy on yourself. Write about your favorite summer as a kid. When feeling courageous, write to confront cancer concerns. Find the words that help reduce cancer’s power over you. Funny stories? The best medicine! Mentors? How did they guide you? What life lessons can you apply to the challenges you face today? Writing offers a sense of control, something that can be in short supply when a cancer treatment regimen replaces your daily routine. Use writing to change the channel.
Writing can help you…
♦ make sense of a health crisis
♦ create a script to practice what to say to loved ones
♦ guide friends as to what you really need
♦ weigh the pros and cons of treatment choices to figure out the best course of action for you
♦ escape (Try writing about a place you would rather be, and include all the sensory details.)
When should I write? How often? For how long? Many people think of journaling as a daily chore – like brushing your teeth. However, writing for coping happens when needed. When thoughts pile up and interfere with sleep, when feelings rise in the throat, distracting from responsibilities, jot them down. A sentence scribbled on a paper napkin at lunch may be all that is needed. Other times, your pen may take on a life of its own, and pages later, you feel a sense of closure. The issue is dealt with, making room for other matters – and a moment’s peace.
When should you start writing? How about now?
Nancy Morgan (pictured above) is the writing clinician at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC, and Director Emeritus of the Arts and Humanities Program and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2017.