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Every month, featured experts answer your questions about coping with cancer.
For Any Cancer Diagnosis
Q. I'm not a writer but am interested in journaling since recently being diagnosed. I feel I have things I want to say that I don't want to share with people. Could you give me direction as to where I should start? Are there resources that could help me?
Many studies have shown that writing or journaling helps to reduce stress. Writing about your thoughts and feelings, especially after being diagnosed with cancer, is a good way to help process what is happening and often helps to make the experience more manageable.
As you get started, remember not to focus on spelling and grammar – it is the content that is important. Find a place to write where you feel comfortable, a space where you will not be interrupted. Choose the method of writing you prefer whether it is using pen and paper or the computer. Try and write daily, for at least 20 minutes, stopping if you feel tired or overwhelmed. Many people find that setting aside a specific time of day, such as the morning, helps them to collect their thoughts and put them on paper.
There are websites that provide a daily writing prompt or photo – many people find this to be very helpful as they begin journaling. My advice is to sit and write, see what flows out onto your paper. If you are feeling stuck, I find Bernadette Mayer’s list of journal ideas to be a wonderful source of inspiration.
If you feel you that you would like to share your writing with others in a small group, I moderate an online therapeutic writing group at CancerCare called Healing with Words. In this group, the participants are provided with writing prompts as well as longer ongoing writing assignments focused on eight unique topics. Group members post their pieces and connect with one another by sharing their work and commenting on other’s writing works. The goal of the group is for members to learn about writing as a method of coping with a cancer diagnosis and to have a forum to share their creative pieces with others.
Q. I have been keeping a journal since I was diagnosed. I wrote in it daily in the beginning and currently write only once or twice a week. Is it better to have a separate journal for each month or just one? I eventually hope to write a book about my cancer experience and will use my journal entries to help me. Any suggestions?
I think it is wonderful that you have utilized journaling and that you started writing upon learning of your diagnosis, continuing to the present time. Few experiences in life are as difficult as learning that you have a diagnosis of cancer. Powerful emotions are stirred up which can be overwhelming and frightening, with many people feeling as if their world has been turned upside down. Writing is a way to give a voice to these feelings such as fear, anger, sadness and loss which may be difficult to express aloud. Putting thoughts to paper can help people feel less overwhelmed and allow them to process these complicated emotions so they can move forward. Many studies show that in addition to helping people cope emotionally by helping them to clear their mind and achieve a sense of calmness, journaling can often provide a much needed distraction and can assist in the alleviation of some symptoms.
Writing a book, or a blog, is a great way to help others who are in a similar situation. Having written your feelings from the earliest stages of your diagnosis to the present will enable you to retrace your steps and read the emotions which were connected to that time. You are able to look back on your journey and read how you were able to cope and keep moving forward. Seeing the progress you have made through difficult and frightening times can be inspiring and sharing your story is a wonderful way to make a difference in the lives of others.
I think it is a personal decision as to how you choose to journal. Separate journals for each month are an option but I find most people use one journal, making sure to date each entry and perhaps mark each month separately in the journal. All the entries are part of your personal story so many choose to keep their writing together as parts of the whole.
If you are interested in reading stories that others have shared about their cancer experiences, an online search of the words “cancer blog” will yield many results.
You may also find this article from The New York Times helpful as you pursue publishing your own book.
Q. Is there ever a time when it isn't good to write or keep a journal? I sometimes wonder if I feel more upset after I write about being diagnosed with cancer and what I'm feeling.
“Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.” – Ayn Rand
Writing can help us to decrease our stress level by helping us to process our feelings and clarify our thoughts. Journaling about your anxieties and fears without incorporating thoughts, hopes and goals can sometimes cause increased stress. It is important to take time to write about the things which bring happiness to you, too.
It may be that you need to start slowly with your journaling. Perhaps simply write for five minutes a day, not necessarily about your cancer but whatever thoughts are in your mind. You can journal about a childhood memory, reflect about a family member, or write down the last time something made you smile or laugh out loud. Select an object in your home and describe it using all of your senses. Many people find that they begin journaling by simply taking pen to paper and writing one thing each day that they are grateful for. As you become more comfortable with writing, you can slowly expand your efforts to explore how you are feeling about your diagnosis and the many emotions that come hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to journal. Writing is whatever you decide it will be – a story, a poem, random thoughts or words, memories, hopes and fears. Hopefully it will provide an outlet for your feelings and, in time, will decrease your stress level. Only you can know if journaling is a positive outlet for you. If writing causes you more upset than happiness or is causing you to feel overwhelmed, perhaps take a break and find another activity which brings you comfort during this challenging time. It is important to remember that if you are experiencing feelings of depression to seek help from a professional. Writing may be an important and helpful tool in your healing but is not the only method of support.
Q. In my journal, I tend to write the unkind things that I wouldn't say in person. Should I destroy these journals so my loved ones don't read them after I am gone and suffer or should I leave them as an honest expression of my feelings at the time?
Journaling is a wonderful means of self expression, allowing us to manage our feelings and express emotions, some of which may be negative and perhaps not meant to be voiced aloud. Writing enables us to vent these feelings in a safe place: your own collection of personal thoughts.
For most people, writing is private. You would feel upset if a family member came to your home and read your journal without your consent. If you keep your journals, chances are they will be read. As you are voicing concern regarding what is contained in your writing, I would listen to those feelings and consider how these journal entries might impact those you love.
If what you wrote are feelings that you want to share, I’d encourage you to do this in person so that the emotions can be put in context and there can be a give and take discussion about these personal thoughts and feelings. If you are not comfortable doing this, I would consider the consequences that what is contained in the journals could cause hurt to your family and possibly complicate their grief. If you do not want this to occur, I would make sure to secure your journal in a safe place to ensure they remain private.