Using Writing to Heal
Janice Muller had kept diaries as a teenager and throughout college. But after she married and started a family, she never slowed down long enough to open a journal, let alone jot down her thoughts.
However, a diagnosis of breast cancer at age forty-two suddenly changed her busy routine. Soon, she felt drawn again to the idea of writing. After buying a crisp, new blank book, she began to record her cancer treatments and the physical toll they were taking on her body. As more pages filled with her neat script, she found herself digging deeper. She wrote of doubts about the treatment not working, fears of dying and leaving behind her family, and the resentment she sometimes felt towards her doctor, who was often short with her.
Sometimes the words would spill out and quickly fill the pages. Other days she would only write a few sentences. The journal became her closest companion in the next few years. When Janice reads through the worn-out book now, she reflects on a time of growth that made her a humbler, yet stronger woman.
Healing Through Journaling
As anyone who keeps a diary knows, writing can be a powerful tool to express emotions. It may even promote healing. Research has found that when people record their deep thoughts about troubling events, their bodies are better able to fight infection and they feel a general sense of well-being.
Margie Davis is a writer and teacher of personal essay writing. She was inspired by a close friend's difficult fight with cancer and her own love of journaling to write The Healing Way: A Journal for Cancer Survivors. Before writing the book, she did research in four Boston-area hospitals by talking with cancer doctors, nurses, social workers and patients to help her understand the issues that people with cancer face.
The Healing Way is a blank journal with questions that guide people to write about their experience with cancer -- beginning with the diagnosis through to recovery. The questions cover feelings about treatment, the health care team, complementary treatments, family and support groups, spirituality, personal growth, and fears of the cancer coming back.
Davis explains the special benefits of writing. "Compare writing and talking; they are both expressive and can be healing. But writing allows a person more time for reflection. When you talk, the words are out of your mouth. With writing, you can see what you just wrote and build on it or reshape it. What's healing is being able to express deep thoughts and emotions about stressful events."
Finding Support Through Writing On-Line
Davis also teaches on-line therapeutic writing classes, which attract new cancer patients and people who have been in remission for many years. "They say they still carry emotional baggage about the experience and want to let it go," she says. Another benefit Davis notes of people taking on-line classes is the community and support received from other classmates.
"People don't have to share their writing, but those who do feel a great sense of relief and togetherness in knowing there are others out there going through a similar thing."
When people first start therapeutic writing, they may feel intimidated sitting in front of a blank piece of paper. For writers and non-writers, it can be easier to have prompting questions or to take a class on journaling. Davis advises, " Don't have rigid ideas about what you are going to write. Just start writing and let your pen lead you. You'll be surprised where that takes you."
Davis understands that writing about certain issues may prompt overwhelming feelings. She recommends that people struggling with these feelings visit a trained professional. They can bring their writing to a counselor who can help them work through feelings that may not have surfaced through talking alone.
Rhyme and Reason
Poetry is another form of therapeutic writing. Molly Saccardo is a poet, writing teacher, and co-host of the Poetry Challenge segments on Boston's WBUR radio program "Here & Now." Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with basal cell skin cancer. Although her parents had had this type of cancer and were cured, she remembers her fear. "Cancer is cancer. It's just a big scary word."
Saccardo turned to poetry to release her emotions. "I wrote the words down so I could see them. Then I could look at the words closely from all angles and find out where the emotions came from and what to do with them."
She explains her fondness for poetry, "Poems pinpoint specific things and make beauty out of words. Whatever you're dealing with, even pain or a cancer experience, can become beautiful through a poem. For example,
...."I love you pain pill for your shape like a white sofa pillow."
"They can also bring healing. They may not make someone well physically, but they can help heal feelings and sew things together emotionally," says Saccardo.
Often a poem will surface from something written in a journal. "When reading through a journal, one word or line may stand out that can become the basis for a poem," she says.
Saccardo offers these tips for new poets:
The next step is to edit. Saccardo says, "Don't be afraid of changing the poem, which is the best part! Love the editing process because no poets ever write something and never change it. Editing actually means you are a good poet and know what you are doing."
Saccardo recommends two easy forms of poetry to get started. One is called "Poems of Address," in which the poem begins as a letter with "Dear (insert name)." Saccardo wrote this one recently to her cancer doctor:
Dear Doctor, thank you for your understanding look and for touching me with ungloved hands.
Another method is called "I Remember." These poems talk about a past event(s). Every line of the poem starts with "I Remember." Saccardo's "I Remember" poem titled, "The Word" came from her own experience with cancer and can be read in the accompanying sidebar box:
'The Word' by Molly Saccardo
I remember my doctor gently touching the odd patches on my face: "I'm concerned, especially about this one. You are young for skin cancer, but we should check these anyway." I remember the dermatologist said almost immediately, "Yes, these all look like you have basal carcinoma." I had expected to ease into the word, but, of course, it was routine to him. I remember feeling sorry for someone who had to spend his day verbally punching people in the gut. I remember that day going to see my son do the Macarena at a charity jump event at his grammar school. I remember telling my husband that the doctor said it was not that bad--some surgery to cut out the spots and I'd be fine. I remember drinking martinis and baking cookies that night to make myself feel better, sort of the Dorothy Parker meets Martha Stewart School of Self-Therapy. I remember sending a funny e-mail to my friend about how I was going to the plastic surgeon before she was. I made a face-lift joke. When she didn't write back, I remembered that her mother died of breast cancer when she was seventeen. I remember writing her again, a "don't worry, it's no big deal, no reason to be scared" letter. I remember she wrote back and said thanks for the comfort; she felt better, but wasn't it supposed to be the other way around?
Online Medical Reviewers:
Fincannon, Joy RN MN
Foster, Sara M. RN, MPH
Stump-Sutliff, Kim RN, MSN, AOCNS
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care.
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