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Writing Your Way Through Cancer

By Heather Millar

journaling

I try to never forget that it’s a privilege to be a reporter. It’s increasingly like being an actor or a sculptor (lots of applicants, not so many jobs). But it’s endlessly interesting: I get to ask people personal questions. I get to explore weird things: learn how a sewer plant works, hang out with astronomers at a radio telescope, spend the night with tree-sitters in an old growth forest, pepper doctors with questions, observe surgeries. But perhaps the best thing about being a reporter is that, usually, I feel like my voice is heard.

When I was in active treatment for cancer, my emotional response was to treat it like a journalism project: I started writing a blog about my breast cancer. I started researching different things about my treatment and then I wrote about them. I expressed the hurricane of emotions cancer inspires: fear, anxiety, anger, gratitude, relief, misery and on and on.

Perhaps most important: I felt that people were listening. This was a source of deep connection and comfort during weeks when I sometimes never left the reclining chair in which I’m writing this post. Even when I didn’t have energy to talk to my husband or my daughter, much less friends, I felt connected to them because they commented on my blog.

My experience is backed by science: A pioneering 2002 study showed that breast cancer patients who kept a journal actually had fewer recurrences and complications. A 2008 Georgetown University study showed that just writing for 20 minutes a day helped cancer patients change the way they felt about their disease. It made a positive impact on their lives. A 2011 pilot study at Baylor University showed that keeping a journal helped testicular cancer patients keep depression at bay.

This makes sense: Writing about your illness helps to organize your thoughts: your fears, your hopes. It provides a record of your experience. As you look back, you may gain new perspective as you see how far you’ve come. It provides distraction. It creates an outlet for emotions.

Many cancer centers and support groups now offer workshops on therapeutic journaling. Just Google “cancer journaling,” and you’ll bring up more hits than you can possibly read. You can find some good tips for getting started here and here . “Think About Your Life,” offers several tools to help patients clarify how they’re feeling about their treatment and their prognosis.

So journaling is good, but I think that journaling in community is better. It’s great to be able to express yourself, but it’s even better to express yourself and be heard.

Several websites offer journaling platforms for patients. “My Lifeline” and “Caring Bridge” help cancer patients set up websites to build supportive communities with family and friends. Most of these sites allow you to choose whether you want your posts to be public, or whether you want to limit access to family and friends.

So why don’t more cancer patients journal? I think some people may worry about their spelling or their writing skill. But perhaps the fear of being really, really honest also may hold some people back. That’s never been a problem for me. Even my 12-year-old teases me that I’m a blabbermouth. My husband, who’s spent 40 years around journalists says I’m the least private person he knows That’s saying something; since journalists aren’t usually very discrete or private.

I suspect that for more normal people—people with a sense of privacy that I seem to have missed—it may be frightening to admit some of the thoughts you have when you have cancer. How do you admit that you’re angry because your spouse is healthy and you’re not? How do you tell friends and family that you’re sick of hearing things like, “You’re going to beat this,” or “Saltines are good for nausea”? How do you explain that you feel overwhelmed when people ask how you’re feeling?

Well, I’ve just come across a platform where patients can journal and really be honest. This is actually my inspiration for this post: Treatment Diaries is kind of like a journaling Facebook.

On the Treatment Diaries site, you can make journal entries and remain anonymous. You can create a diary home page. From there, you can connect with people who have similar conditions and/or a similar point of view. You can write without worrying about hurting feelings or what people who know you personally might think. You can share without pulling punches. That sounds incredibly freeing to me.

Do you keep a journal? Would you like to do so? Do you know of any other journaling communities on the web? Post them here!

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