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Writing for Healing During Cancer

Woman writes in journal

Lucretia Hurley-Browning, MDiv, MS, Abramson Cancer Center chaplain at Pennsylvania Hospital, explains why writing is an effective way to handle the many different emotions triggered by living with cancer and how to get started. 

People facing a serious illness can find it difficult to express their feelings. Some aren’t used to revealing their emotions. Others feel a need to be strong for the sake of people around them. But keeping our emotions bottled up can increase stress and its impact on our bodies. Writing can be an effective way to handle the many different emotions triggered by living with cancer.

Journal writing empowers us to express our difficult feelings safely and privately. It allows you to come to terms with cancer at your own pace and in your own way. Your journal will always be there to receive your thoughts and feelings. As you work through the initial shock of your diagnosis and the uncomfortable feelings that treatment can provoke, writing can help you get in touch with your basic values, rediscover your positive qualities and strengths and uncover new ones. Journal writing can also enable you to put illness in perspective: By writing, you will realize that your illness is only a part of you, not the whole person.

Getting Started

1. Get your materials

Chances are you already have what you need to keep a journal: something to write with and something to write on. Although most bookstores sell elegant journals with leather covers and gold-edged pages, these can make journal writing feel difficult. Many people are reluctant to write the hurt, anger, sadness and confusion that they feel on fancy pages. Rather than write about their everyday lives, they wait for profound thoughts. Their journals remain unopened and unused.

Inexpensive notebooks allow you the freedom to be yourself and to express your thoughts and feelings honestly. They also liberate you from worrying about your penmanship, spelling or grammar.

If typing is easier for you, keep your journal on your computer!

2. Find a safe space to write (and to keep your journal)

If you are afraid that someone will read your journal without your permission, you might censor what you write. This will decrease the benefits of writing. Be clear with others about your right to privacy, and find a place to keep your journal where others won't be tempted to read it.

However, if you wish to share passages from your journal with family, friends or members of a cancer support, go ahead! Some people even decide to revise and copy parts of their journal entries into blank books to give to another person. What you share and what you keep to yourself is up to you. Some journal keepers save their writings in order to reread them or pass them on. Others throw them away. The choice of whether to keep or discard your journals is yours alone to make.

3. Just start writing!

Because your journal is a unique reflection of who you are, there is no right way to keep it. The type of writing that has been shown to provide benefits is writing about what happens to you and how you feel about it. During some phases of your illness and treatment, you may not have the energy to set down more than a word or two each day. That’s fine. Every little bit helps.

Here are some simple ideas to get you started:

  • Lists: Write down 10 ways that your life changed since your diagnosis, 10 strengths you possess, 10 qualities about yourself you wish you could change or 10 ways you can nurture yourself. While you’re at it, make a list of 10 lists you could write in your journal.
  • Unsent Letters: During major life transitions, we often feel a need to resolve old conflicts with people or express ourselves in a way we can't do in person. Writing unsent letters in your journal is a powerful way to finish old business and move forward.
  • Memories: Write about a time in your life when you faced a challenge with courage. Or write about your childhood: your favorite toy, an eccentric relative or your first crush.
  • Dreams: Before you go to sleep, set an intention to remember your dreams. Write them down as soon as you wake up. You might be surprised by the insights and guidance they contain.
  • Reflections: Collect sayings and quotations that move you. When you want to journal but can’t think of anything to write, choose one and write about it.
  • Word Sketches: Become a word artist. Carry your journal with you to create word pictures of what you observe, such as scraps of conversation, sights, sounds, smells or other sensations.
  • Prayers: If you are a spiritual person, you can use your journal to write letters to God or your Higher Power. Many people find that written prayer gives them comfort and solace in difficult times. 
  • Gratitude: Just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you are limited to writing about your illness. Be sure to keep an account of the good things in your life. Writing down your daily blessings—a glorious sunrise, a smile from a stranger, a letter from a friend—can boost your mood. A recent study showed that people who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, were more optimistic, felt better about themselves, were less troubled by physical symptoms and had more energy than those who wrote about neutral or negative events.

Getting Extra Help

Living with cancer is an intense experience. If as you write, you feel overwhelmed by your feelings or stuck in a downward spiral, try changing the subject to one that evokes good feelings for you or take a break and set your journal aside. You can always pick it up later. Should the out-of-control feelings persist, schedule an appointment with a helping professional to explore other methods of coping.

If you are interested in being part of a writing group or individual experience, please contact Lucretia Hurley-Browning at 215-829-7210 or lucretia.hurley-browning@uphs.upenn.edu.

About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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