Fostering Growth and Creativity Through Journaling

There are so many ways to handle the wide variety of feelings that living with cancer triggers. Often people who are living with a serious illness as a patient (or their family members) find it difficult to express their feelings to others. Some aren’t used to revealing their emotions. Others feel a need to be strong for the sake of the people around them. For whatever reason we do it, when we keep our emotions bottled up, we actually increase our stress and the impact it has on our bodies.

Journal writing is one way to effectively handle our fears and emotions that can otherwise get internalized. Writing can empower us to express our difficult feelings in a safe and private way. It allows us to come to terms with cancer at our own pace and in our own way. Your journal is always there to receive your thoughts and feelings.

In addition to giving you a chance to express yourself and reduce stress, regular journal writing provides a way to make sense of life events, find meaning in them and learn the lessons they have to teach. Because journal writing helps us 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 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

  • 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.
  • Although most bookstores sell elegant journals with leather covers and gold-edged pages, these can make journal writing seem like an impossible task. 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.
  • 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.

Keep It Safe

  • 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.
  • 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 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.

What to Write About

  • 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 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 might consider tape recording your thoughts and feelings at these times.
  • 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.

How Do I Get Started?

There are endless possibilities for journaling. Experiment to find out what works best for you. Ideas include

  • Lists: Write down 50 ways in which your life changed since your diagnosis, 50 strengths you possess, 50 qualities within yourself you wish you could change, 50 ways you can nurture yourself. While you’re at it, make a list of 50 lists you could write in your journal.
  • Letters(you don’t have to send): 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 us. We may need to express ourselves to the people who are currently important to us 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.
  • Journal Prompts: Check out cancer survivor Suleika Jaouad’s journaling community The Isolation Journals for inspiration and journal prompts.

Write About More Than Your Cancer

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.

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.

Getting More 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 choose to begin a journal, take some of these suggestions if they are helpful. In any case, your writing is YOURS.  It is BY you, FOR you. Simply take the plunge and just begin!

Samantha Null is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the Coordinator of Oncology Psychosocial Services at the Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital.  She also serves as the director of the Psycho-Oncology Rotation for the Pennsylvania Hospital Psychology Internship Program. She provides supportive psychotherapy for patients across the continuum of care, and is involved in cancer program quality, program development, and operational improvements. Sam lives in Havertown with her husband, children, and pups.

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