A cancer diagnosis brings overwhelming feelings, a multitude of appointments, a sense of managing a second job for which the pay is fatigue, possible hair loss and a tired debit card laden with co-pays. As an oncology social worker and journal group facilitator, my goal with survivors is often focused on finding an action plan grounded in self-care amidst this flurry of activity.
The benefits of journal writing have been studied for over 25 years. Among those studies, included are ones focused on the benefits of journal writing with cancer survivors. Generally, the benefits have been positive.
If you knew that something as simple as writing in a journal for as little as five minutes might bring you some relief from the overwhelming feelings of cancer, would you give it a shot? If you knew that it is completely normal for you to feel triggered by walking back into the doctor’s office for a follow-up appointment, might you go a little easier on yourself?
I have heard survivors mention these following triggers coming up for them: walking past the infusion center; certain smells in the building where the doctor’s office is; and just going to park the car on the deck where they parked to go for treatment. Post-traumatic stress has been studied in cancer and I want you to know that you are in good company with others who have experienced symptoms like these.
Utilizing journal writing techniques can assist in healing and recovery from treatment and encourage a gentle grounding in the midst of the overwhelming experience of cancer.
In one of my cancer survivor journal writing groups, a big question which surfaced for the participants was, “Who am I now?” This came out of a technique called Lists of 100 created by Kathleen (Kay) Adams, the Director for the Center for Journal Therapy . Their journals led them to reframe that idea to, “I want …” I watched their lives change before my eyes. One participant, a young woman surviving breast cancer, completely changed jobs. Another’s relationship with his children, including a son serving in Afghanistan, transformed through writing and exchanging poetry.
Try this: Either dust off a journal that has been patiently waiting for you on your bookshelf or pick up one at the dollar store. Take five minutes to try one or more of the following prompts and then write for a few minutes about how it felt and what you noticed. Leave me a comment and tell me how it went. If you are new to journaling, please know there is no rule book. Your journal is yours and is a private relationship. The journal is your buddy and it will never, ever care what you write in it.
1: List: 10 Ways I Feel Safe
2: Describe a room in your house where you feel safe, comfortable and relaxed. Include as many details as you want. What time of day is it? What color are the walls? What photos are in plain view? What books are within reach? Is music playing? What is it? (You get the idea).
3: Here’s one to celebrate autumn: How will you celebrate and enjoy fall? Football? Pumpkins? Halloween candy? Planning a new, non-traditional dish to add to the spread for Thanksgiving? Jumping in raked piles of leaves? You tell me.
Remember to write feedback when you’re finished. And, please feel free to leave me a comment on the blog – I’d love to hear what surfaced for you!
A few references for you (email me  if you’d like me to send you a PDF of any of these articles):
Adams, K., (1999). Writing as therapy. Counseling and Human Development, 31, 1-16.
Frisina, P.G., Borod, J.C., & Lepore, S.J., (2004). A meta-analysis of the effects of written emotional disclosure on the health outcomes of clinical populations. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 192, 629-634.
Hampton, M.R., & Frombach, I. (2000). Women’s experience of traumatic stress in cancer. Health Care for Women International, 21, 67-76.
Kangas, M., Henry, J.L., & Bryant, R.A. (2002). Posttraumatic stress disorder following cancer: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 22, 499-524.
Stanton, A.L., & Danoff-Burg, S., (2002). Emotional expression, expressive writing, and cancer. In S.J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds.) The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (pp. 31-51). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ullrich, P.M., & Lutgendorf, S. K., (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression.
Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 244-250.