Therapeutic Writing and Journaling

Older Woman Journal Writing

As you strive to keep ourselves balance, writing can be a great way to cope with challenges. Journal writing is one of the tools that is very effective in balancing and managing your emotions and feelings.

According to a recent study conducted at the University of California Davis, 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.

How Writing Can Help You Cope

Journal writing empowers you to express your difficult feelings is a safe and private way. It allows you to come to terms with cancer at your own pace and in your own way. Your journal is always there to receive your thoughts and feelings.

In addition, it gives you the chance to express yourself and reduce stress. Regular journal writing provides a way to make sense of life events— find meaning in them by learning the lessons it teaches you. Journal writing helps you to focus inward, it fosters coming to terms with illness and regaining a sense of control. Journal writing also helps people to clarify their thoughts and make good choices.

As you work through the initial shock of your diagnosis and the uncomfortable feelings that and treatment can provoke, writing can aid you to get in touch with your basic values, to rediscover the positive qualities and strengths you had forgotten as well as to uncover new ones. Journal writing enables 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

Many people are reluctant to honestly write the hurt, anger, sadness and confusion they feel on fancy pages! Some people find blank books like these to be inhibiting in other ways. Rather than writing about their everyday lives, they wait for profound thoughts. Their journals remain unopened and unused. Afraid to make a mistake, others write very little or nothing at all.

  • Writing tools – Chances are you already have what you need in order to keep a journal – something to write with and something to write on. Use your favorite writing instrument whether it is a ballpoint, a pencil, a felt tip pen or colored markers. If keyboarding is easier for you, consider keeping your journal on your computer.
  • Journal Inexpensive spiral notebooks, composition books, legal pads and sketchbooks allow you the freedom to be yourself and to express your thoughts and feelings honestly. They liberate you from worrying about having to come up with profound insights and from fears about your penmanship, spelling, and grammar.
  • Free options There are free journals designed for our center. Ask about them from anyone on the supportive care team or contact our Cancer Program Coordinator, Marylou Osterman at 215-829-6466. Use these or any other materials that are helpful for you.

A Safe Space for Writing

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 to discard your journals is also yours alone to make.

  • Privacy – If you are afraid that someone will read the words you are writing without your consent, you may censor what you put on the page. This will decrease the benefits writing brings. Be clear with others about your right to privacy. Decide where you will keep your journal when you are not writing so that others will not be tempted read it without your permission.
  • Sharing – You may share passages from your journal with family, friends and members of your cancer support group if you wish. Some people decide to revise and copy parts of their journal entries into an elegant blank book to give to another person.

What to Write About

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 emotional and health benefits is writing about what happens to you and setting down 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 in order to track your feelings and what you did. That’s fine. Every little bit helps. You could also consider tape recording your thoughts and feelings at these times if writing does not work for you.

As you become comfortable with keeping a journal, you may want to use other techniques in addition to keeping a daily log of events and feelings.

Forms of Writing

Writing in a journal is not for everyone, her are a few options you may wish to write your thoughts in a different form.

  • ListsWrite down 10 ways in which your life changed since your diagnosis, 10 strengths you possess, 10 qualities within yourself you wish you could change, 10 ways you can nurture yourself. While you’re at it, make a list of 10 lists you could write in your journal.
  • Unsent Letter During major life transitions we often feel a need to resolve old conflicts or to tell people from the past the things we wish we’d said to them long ago. Often these people are unavailable to you. We may need to express ourselves to the people who are currently important to you, but hold ourselves back. Writing unsent letters to these people in your journal is a powerful way to finish old business, let go of old resentments and move forward.
  • Prayers  If you are a spiritual person, you may want to try writing letters to God or your Higher Power in your journal. Many people find written prayer gives them comfort and solace in difficult times.
  • Memories – Write about an earlier time in your life when you faced a challenge with courage, your experiences with illness as a child or your reactions when you learned family members or friends had cancer. Write about your childhood – your favorite toy, the most eccentric relative you can remember, your best friend from first grade, your first crush.
  • Dreams – Before you go to sleep at night set the intention to remember your dreams. First thing when you wake up in the morning, write them down. Even though they might not make sense at the time, when you record your dreams and reread them over time, you will be surprised at the insights and guidance they contain.
  • Reflections – Collect sayings and quotations that move you. When you want to journal, but can’t think of a single thing to write, choose one of them and write about it.
  • Word Sketches – Become a word artist. Carry your journal with you to create word pictures of what you observe. Jot down scraps of conversation. Describe the sights and sounds, the tastes, the smells, the way things feel.
  • Counting Your Blessings – Just because you have cancer and are keeping a journal, doesn’t mean you are limited to writing about your illness. Be sure to keep an account of the good things in your life as well as the hassles. Writing down your daily blessings – a glorious sunrise, a smile from a stranger, a letter from a friend can boost your mood.
  • Plays or Short Stories – If you really get on a roll, write a short story or even a play. You can make it fictional or biographical. Have fun with it or use it as a tool for purging and growing.


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 your feelings persist, you may wish to schedule an appointment with a helping professional to explore other methods of coping or you may be interested in being part of a writing group or individual experience.

Our supportive care staff would be good resources to talk through options for support.

For more information, contact: Marylou Osterman (Cancer Program Coordinator) at 215-829-6466; Samantha Null (Psychology Services Coordinator) at 215-829-6379; or Gyrid Lyon (Psychology Referral Coordinator) at 215-829-7343.

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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