Can writing your thoughts down really help you get through cancer?
In fact, self-reflective writing is a wonderful way to cope with strong emotions and feeling of sadness, anger or helplessness. According to Crystal McCown, Social Work Counselor Fellow at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, seeing your feelings and thoughts on paper – or a screen – can help validate your experience and give you an opportunity to work out your feelings and emotions, which may help you relax, find peace and even be optimistic about the future.
Benefits of journaling
Writing in a journal can be therapeutic. It can give you a sense of purpose, force you to think through your feelings and can provide a sense of accomplishment.
- Seek the positive: By writing in a journal, you can identify positive situations or events that have resulted from your cancer diagnosis. You may have reconnected with family or friends, received an outpouring of support, or chosen to warn others about dangerous lifestyle habits.
- Focus on what you can control: Journaling can help you recognize which things you have control over and which things you do not and how you can use that knowledge in your life.
- Find peace in your relationships: Journaling privately can help with day-to-day interactions. Disclosing your deepest feelings in writing might prepare you to have a difficult conversation with a loved one, or it might allow you to simply enjoy your time together, having expressed your negative thoughts already.
- Scientific evidence: A Georgetown University Medical Center study published in The Oncologist found that cancer patients who participated in journal-keeping changed the way they thought about their disease and improved their physical quality of life. In 2002, the Journal of Clinical Oncology reported that a statistically significant percentage of early-stage breast cancer patients who participated in a journaling project reported “reduced medical visits for cancer-related morbidities.”
The short answer to the question of how to journal is: any way you want.
Just do it in a way that is preserved (not in the sand or on a chalkboard, for instance) and date your entries. When your memories grow fuzzy, you’ll appreciate having a visual recording of your personal journey.
Choose your medium: Does a small spiral bound notebook suit your write-any-time style or is a bound leather journal more inspiring? For some, a sleek, new fancy journal is too intimidating. If you fear you’ll “mess it up,” a basic composition book from the drug store may do the trick, Perhaps the keyboard is your go-to writing tool. Just find the method that works for you.
When to journal: For some, setting aside time at a specific time of day provides the structure and continuity they need to journal regularly. Others may like the spontaneity of journaling when they have a thought they want to record. Whichever you prefer, try to make journaling a regular part of your day or week.
Who to write for: It may be useful to decide ahead of time if your journal is for your eyes only or if yours will be an ‘open book.’ Perhaps you have wisdom and insight about cancer, or life, that you’d like to share. Perhaps you have feelings of anger toward others you need to vent and keep private. Whomever you decide your audience is, write as honestly as possible about your hopes, fears, dreams and frustrations.
What to write: If you’re new to journaling and looking for suggestions, try one of these:
- Gratitude journaling: Write about things you're grateful for. This focuses your attention on the positive aspects of your life.
- Stream-of-consciousness writing: Write whatever comes to mind. This unstructured, unedited writing style can be very liberating and reveal inner thoughts you may not have acknowledged.
- Art journaling: Draw, doodle or scrapbook what you're feeling and thinking. Keep an envelope with you on for items that you might want to collage: receipts, sketches, news clippings, movie tickets, phrases or images from magazines or anything that catches your eye.
- Line-a-day journaling: Limit yourself to a single line or sentence for the day.
- Join a group: There are online journaling groups, like this one through Cancer Care which is led by cancer health professionals, that can provide camaraderie and a sounding board for your thoughts.
- Write about your future: Visualize yourself in retirement, on vacation, finished with chemo or living a life without cancer and write about how that looks and feels.
- Morning pages: When you wake up, write a page on whatever comes into your mind — could be dream fragments, tasks for the day, feelings, moods, etc. Every day. First thing.
- Observational journaling: If you’re having a hard time getting started, just record what’s going on around you – the date, weather, family happenings and how you’re feeling physically. It may eventually lead to deeper observations.
After the journal
It is possible that journaling about experiences and emotions will leave you more upset than relieved. If this is the case for you, you might want to seek help from a mental health professional and use your journal to introduce what's bothering you. Don’t leave raw emotions untended, get the help you need to move forward with a healthy mental state.
Journaling is one approach to self-care during your cancer journey. For more resources, browse our blog. For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s Newsletter.