The Write Stuff: Expressive Writing About Cancer Promotes Healing and Well-Being

Writing about your cancer experience could be beneficial.

Loree Luther first picked up a pen to write about her experience with cancer a few weeks after receiving a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma at age 38. At first, she’d been too busy and too traumatized, dealing with doctor appointments, finishing up wedding cakes for clients and trying to explain cancer to her two young children.

“I had a couple of treatments under my belt, and my hair was coming out,” says the 42-year-old San Diego pastry chef.  “It was a critical time. I didn’t know yet if the treatment was working.”

So Luther began working through her anxiety by putting it down on paper during an expressive writing workshop for cancer patients and caregivers offered by the cancer center at Scripps Clinic and Scripps Green Hospital  in La Jolla, Calif. The experience proved powerful. “Writing was as important to my recovery as any chemotherapy or radiation I received,” Luther says.

Research shows that expressive writing can measurably improve the physical and mental health of many of those who have been traumatized, including those dealing with cancer. The findings have led to the inclusion of expressive writing programs in complementary therapies offered by several cancer centers.

James Pennebaker, PhD, a social psychology researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, discovered the association between expressive writing, trauma and health improvement more than two decades ago.

“Our basic findings have been replicated in the last 25 years in more than 300 related studies from labs around the world,” Pennebaker says. “We’re still not entirely sure why it works, but the result crosses boundaries of age, gender [and] social class.”

In Pennebaker’s experiments and in subsequent studies, people who wrote about intensely emotional experiences four consecutive days for about 15 minutes each time made fewer illness-related trips to the doctor. Their liver and lung function also improved, and they experienced a decrease in high blood pressure.

Luther says working through the assignments in her writing group helped her organize on paper all the diverse thoughts and feelings she was experiencing—hope, anxiety, fear, sadness, relief and joy.

“Writing was a way for me to sort through everything,” Luther says. “There’s only so much you want to dump on family. You don’t want to add to their emotional load sometimes,” she says. “But you can always dump on paper.”

Or on the computer. Or by recording your own stories if you can’t type or write, Pennebaker says. Although science hasn’t nailed down precisely how emotional or reflective writing improves health, he suspects that there are several contributing factors, and Luther identified a key one.

Writing was as important to my recovery as any chemotherapy or radiation I received.

“When something unexpected or jolting occurs, such as the diagnosis of cancer, our brains automatically try to figure it out,” Pennebaker says. “Writing may make that figuring-out process more efficient. If we can construct a story out of it, a simple and coherent story, it may allow us to move through the experience more efficiently.”

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