Expressing One’s Thoughts

CURE, Summer 2012, Volume 11, Issue 2

Learn ways to begin expressive writing about your cancer experience.

“Write about the moment when the doctor said ‘cancer.’” That’s often the first suggestion Sharon Bray, EdD, makes in a new writing group for people touched by cancer.

“Tell me your story,” Bray prompts. “Write, ‘Once upon a time, there was this person who went to the doctor…’”

Bray, a California-based writer and author of two books on the healing power of writing through cancer, offers therapeutic writing workshops for people with cancer through the Scripps and Stanford cancer centers. Sometimes, she says, people struggle to come up with that first word or sentence.

“I tell them, ‘Start where you are,’” Bray says. “Maybe it’s nothing but a rant at first…I say, let it rip! Nobody has to see it.”

Eventually, Bray says, she encourages writers to come back to the story, “because that’s where research tells us the power in writing lies. Writing is a cognitive act, it allows this cognitive restructuring that starts to have those physical benefits.”

And what’s this story? “Story means, write what happened,” Bray says. “A story is when you call your mom in Connecticut and say, ‘So, I went to the doctor this week…’”

And after people write that, she says, they are asked to explain what the story means.

In addition to her workshops, Bray posts weekly writing prompts that may be a question, a poem or an image on her blog WritingThroughCancer.com. They include such suggestions as:

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 Write about the moment when the doctor said “cancer.”

> Write about hair—having it and losing it.

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 Tell the story of your scar.

Ali Zidel Meyers, a businessowner in Cupertino, Calif., began one of Bray’s workshops soon after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer at age 33, five years ago.

“I have always written, but my cancer diagnosis sparked a more fervent and necessary kind of writing,” Meyers says. She started writing on her own, but Meyers soon found one of Bray’s writing groups.

During three-hour sessions, Meyers and the other participants wrote in response to prompts, which they could share with the group after each exercise, if they chose. The participants responded by commenting on what was strong or touching in the work.

“The experience gave me affirmation, peace and power,” Meyers writes. “To find, develop and share your voice—through writing or other creative means—is empowering, especially in a situation where you’re facing your mortality so intimately.”

Psychologists who have studied the benefits and potential risks of therapeutic writing caution those who pick up the pen to be aware of their own reactions. If writers realize that they’re thinking more often or more negatively about their diagnosis, they should drop it for awhile. Try doing something else.

“You do need to know yourself,” says Carissa Low, PhD, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, “to be able to identify if this is working for you.”