The Healing Power of Journaling Your Way through Cancer

woman writing in journal“In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.” –Franz Kafka

Several years ago I co-led a support group for men living with HIV. Many of the people in the group were coping with depression, chronic pain, and the side effects of daily HIV medication. A few of the group members were also dealing with a secondary medical issue in addition to HIV: hepatitis C, lymphoma, or the residual effects of a massive stroke.

At one point I suggested to the group that they consider the use of journaling as a way to manage feelings, cope with the stressors of mental health issues and physical illness, and keep a physical record of the ups and downs of daily life. The group looked at me like I was an alien. After a couple of beats of silence, one of the group members finally asked, “You mean, keep a diary … like a teenage girl?” The group dissolved into laughter.

It look a while to convince the group that journaling was not just the domain of an angsty teenager holed up in her bedroom obsessing about the boy who sits in front of her in science class … although it could be that, as the 25-year-old journals sitting in a box in my bedroom closet can attest. Journaling is also a tool that can open us to a powerful portal for reflection, growth, and healing. It can be especially helpful to those going through the experience of cancer.

Research has shown that journaling can have many benefits for people who are newly diagnosed, in treatment, or who have completed treatment for cancer. In a study conducted at Georgetown University, participants in an expressive writing program reported a significant impact from time spent journaling about their cancer. In fact, more than half of the participants in the study reported changes in how they thought about their condition after spending just 20 minutes writing about their cancer experience.

Writing can be an amazingly therapeutic instrument. It’s a simple way to document your life challenges and experiences. It also allows you to express and process feelings that you might otherwise push down and bury deep. It may seem overly simplistic, but there is tremendous power in the act of putting your emotions on paper. It’s validating in an unexpected way, and it eases the burden of trying to manage your feelings all on your own.

I’ve been journaling since childhood and have always marveled at the way it has helped me work through a problem, a feeling, a fear. After my own cancer diagnosis, I often took to my journal as a way to expel the darkness and anxiety I was carrying inside about my prognosis. Sometimes I felt it was the only place I could go and really express those distressing emotions; I didn’t want to burden my worried husband, friends, or family. My journal was the place I allowed myself to not hold up a brave face. All my thoughts about the possibility of my own death, my disappointment and anger at my own body, my grief over the loss of my identity as a “healthy person,” all went onto the page.

Many people report that even during times when they couldn’t seem to get “unstuck” from a feeling or problem by writing about it, the act of simply externalizing it and dumping it off in the journal was helpful. It can also be beneficial to look back at your process and progress along this cancer experience—to see the strides you’ve made in regaining some of your physical strength and in reclaiming your sense of purpose through looking at those old journals. It can give you a sense of pride to see where you started out at diagnosis and where you’ve come to post-treatment. Life is always a work in progress, but being able to examine your growth through a difficult time in your life is empowering.

If you’ve never tried journaling before, all of this talk of the benefits might sound very esoteric to you. I encourage you to give it a shot and see what your own experience is like. While there are no hard and fast rules about how to journal, there are some tips I can share with you that may be helpful:

  • Consider investing in an attractive, hardbound journal. Not everyone likes writing by hand, especially if you’ve spent most of your adult life writing with the assistance of a computer. However, there is something special about the physical process of handwriting that, to me, is a helpful part of the journaling experience. It gives you additional time to contemplate and examine emotions that you don’t have time to look at while quickly tapping away on a keyboard.
  • Allow your journal to be a no-judgment zone, and don’t censor yourself. This may be the main difference between the experience of journaling and keeping an online blog. Your journal should be the receptacle for all of your most private and innermost thoughts. If you feel comfortable sharing those thoughts with the world, by all means do so. But you might consider using your journal as the place to develop ideas for your blog, picking and choosing what you want to share with the world and what stays with just you.
  • Set aside time daily for your journaling practice. If not daily, at least a few times a week. Just like any relationship, your relationship with your writing will develop with frequency, time, and commitment.
  • Create a journal that feels authentic to who you are. If you’re a creative person who loves art, incorporate drawings or doodles that give expression to what you are feeling. You might find it helpful to chronicle noteworthy experiences in your day or keep lists of short- and long-term goals. Many people going through tough times report that keeping a gratitude journal is helpful in keeping them in touch with and appreciative of the good things in their life. Find whatever works for you. There are no rights or wrongs when it comes to journaling. Begin today … there is no better time than now to get started.

Reference:

Moran, N., Graves, K., Poggi, E. and Cheson, B. (2008) Implementing an expressive writing study in a cancer clinic. The Oncologist, Feb 2008 vol 13 no 2 196-204.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stacey Fuller, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • benny

    benny

    September 3rd, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Journaling can be a healing and therapeutic experience for most anyone, and then look at how good this will make you feel when you go back and read those things that you were going through with that cancer demon and how strong you are to have made it through to the other side!

  • Helen

    Helen

    September 3rd, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    It really is a good outlet for that grief and fear that you are feeling but don’t necessarily feel so good about sharing with other peole. You don’t need to ehar any more sorrow, you just want to have an outlet so that you can let some of that go. Putting pen to paper can help you do that and can help to relieve many of your anxieties that it is only natural that you are feeling.

  • DeNiSe

    DeNiSe

    September 4th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    When I first received my cancer diagnosis I was stunned because I thought that I was the healthiest person that I knew and yet here it was, the word that most of us want to avoid at all costs. I didn’t know quite how to process it- I had done all the right things, watched my weight, ate right, exercised daily and still here it was creeping up on me. I turned to writing as a release for some of that because I was hurt and frustrated and even though I was going through treatment I knew that I was in the wrong frame of mind for it to have any benefit to me until I was able to let go some of that and get to where I could honestly and faithfully fight thre battle that had to be fought. The wroting challenenged me to think in new ways and to deal with issues that I thought were long gone and it helped me to get through a very troubling and sad time for me on a personal level.

  • mary george

    mary george

    September 4th, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    It can help to change your perspective when you allow yourself to put down your feelingfs on paper. I think that writing is one of those activities that can help you sort through all of the madness even when there is not a way otherwise. It lets you see a little more clearly what you are thinking because once you have ot down on paper, it is there for you to look back over and really try to understand. Not to mention that this is something really good just to help you get some things off of your mind when your inclination could be to hold it all in.

  • Ally

    Ally

    September 5th, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    Any form of expression can be healing for you. Start a blog, paint a picture, write a poem, do a little dance- anything that is expressive and helps you get those feelings out can be a great start toward becoming healthy and whole once again.

  • Pete W.

    Pete W.

    September 10th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    I really don’t know of anything that can be more soul soothing and allow for more soul searching than the power that writing has. This is not about grammar, this is not about having coherent thoughts; this is about getitng the thoughts and feelings out that you have on the inside and allowing this to be a medium for working through them in a methodical fashion. You may eventually want to share what you have written with others and then again this may be something that you will wish to keep private. NO matter how you choose to share or not to share, there will be healing that happens when you allow what you are feeling inside to flow outward and let yourself feel all the grief, the sadness, the anger, and yes possibly even the happiness and the joy that you have inside.

  • Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    September 16th, 2014 at 4:25 PM

    Thank you so much to all who have commented. Journaling is such a powerful medium for connecting with and working through emotions that it’s not surprising to me that the article resonated with you.
    I’m currently working on a few other upcoming blog posts that focus on additional self-healing techniques such as meditative walking and guided imagery. Once we learn how to use and employ these techniques, we have tools that we can use to face the myriad of challenges that come our way in life.
    I so deeply appreciate your feedback and hope that I can continue to be of service to you through future blog posts.

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