Writing Can Be Therapeutic for Cancer Survivors


Magic that occurs when we write.

Writing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. A few months ago, while cleaning out a closet that is seldom touched, I ran across a green three-hole notebook in which I found what I think was my first novel (there hasn’t been a second since I stuck to nonfiction). I wrote it in the 8th grade, which means I was 12 or 13.

It was handwritten on lined paper and my handwriting was terrible, and the black ink had smudged badly. But as I began to make my way through the misspelled words, I saw the passion that had been poured into the story.

The focus was a horse, of course, since I was one of those little girls who would have traded any sibling for a horse. Since my dad was a naval officer, we moved frequently so don’t ask me where this fascination came from. We were never near ranches or farms and moving every two years did not make it easy to even find horses where we were. Even riding lessons were difficult because with four children to feed, my mom could hardly be asked to put out money for me to sit on a horse and trot around an arena.

So, all things horses had to be left to my imagination, and it was clear that I had put it to good use in this story of a wild black horse that only I could save. OK, it was trite, and probably in the back of my mind from one of the many movies or books, I devoured.

Magic that occurs when we write. As a feature writer by training in the journalistic tradition, I have spent my life telling the stories of others and how they live or cope in circumstances that will educate or enlighten readers.

But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I couldn’t write about it. The fear was too great, and every time I wanted to write about it, I froze — a panic attack on the horizon. Putting the word “cancer” on paper was just too much, I think.

Then three years after my diagnosis, I was asked to teach a journaling course for breast cancer survivors. I almost turned it down when I felt that old familiar tug to put fingers to keys, so I said yes.

I gave the class prompts as in: On the day I first heard the word “cancer,” I reacted by…

It took them a minute and then I could feel the energy in the room as they took a deep dive into their past to find that moment. As I completed the prompt myself, I felt a release as I revisited that moment with a new understanding that only time can bring. Those who wanted to discussed what they wrote and there were tears and laughter all around.

Writing is a release. We take what is stuck in the corners of our minds and put them on paper to be read and reread, watching as they lose their power over us.

Try it. And don’t worry if you think you can’t WRITE, this is writing , lower case, and there is no right or wrong unless you want to try to publish it, but that is another story. Over the years, I have written poetry about my cancer as well as a book, The Breast Cancer Companion. I have also done free writing, where you put the first thing that comes to mind without editing. I use a big green sketch book for that one, because if my handwriting was terrible all those years ago, lymphedema has only made it worse and free writing can be fast and messy.

Maybe one day I will share the first poem I ever wrote about cancer.

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