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Write What You Know

Writing a cancer narrative can provide emotional healing.

By Jessica Lawlor; Photos by Amy Smith

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American writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner once said, “If a story is in you, it has got to come out.”

Many who have experienced cancer and the journey through treatment and survivorship emerge with an amazing story to tell—a story that, when shared, might just provide healing for the writer and for others facing a diagnosis. Experts agree that the process of writing can be very therapeutic for those fighting cancer.

“Expressive and reflective writing is one of many tools in the Mind-Body Medicine Program available to support the unique and individual ways that patients process the losses associated with having cancer,” says Corliss Ivy, LCPC, MA, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. “Writing can help patients explore and express their emotions and help them structure their thoughts, allowing them to find meaning in what could be described as an unpredictable and distressing life event.”

Tiffany Glisson, MSW, a Mind-Body Therapist at CTCA® in Newnan, Georgia, agrees: “Writing can be cathartic. You have freedom of expression. Sometimes we get so caught up in our thinking that our thoughts play like a recording. To get the thoughts in control, it takes getting them out of our heads and writing them down.”

Not only is writing cathartic, but it has also been linked to a positive impact on health outcomes. Research is ongoing into the impact that writing about our experiences can have physiologically and emotionally. A recent New York Times article references several studies suggesting that the power of writing can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.¹

Psychologist James W. Pennebaker’s research on the connection between writing and health found that through writing we can find some relief from worry. This frees up a person to be more present in his or her life to enjoy what is happening in the moment. People who write about their experiences can feel less depressed and anxious as well as more positive in general.²

Ivy explains that Pennebaker’s work suggests that writing about experiences, particularly traumatic ones, can improve overall immune function, improve memory and contribute to healthier blood pressure and heart rate.

The benefits are also mental and emotional. Glisson explains that one of the benefits of writing is that it helps patients regain control and power over their lives. “I’ve heard from patients that cancer makes them feel like they’ve lost control and power. Writing helps us recapture that control,” she says.

Writing also allows a person to look toward the future. “When you write your own story, you also have the ability to write the ending of the story and how you’d like to see things go,” explains Glisson. “Patients can write about the day-to-day but also project into the future what they want to happen.”

Writing can take a wide variety of shapes and forms, depending on a person’s preference and comfort level. For example, some patients may wish to share their experiences through a public forum like a blog or on social media, whereas other patients may prefer writing by hand in a diary or creating a personal vision board.

Yes I Can-cer: Healing Through Publishing
Linda Kohliem, mother of five, grandmother of 17 and great-grandmother of four, has always understood the importance of expressing gratitude, even in tough situations.

When Linda was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer in February 2011, her oncologist at the time gave her three years to live. Unsatisfied, Linda sprang into action and began researching other options. She found CTCA in Zion and began treatment there just one month later.
Throughout treatment Linda kept a gratitude journal. Every single day she sat down to write what she was grateful for. She also began journaling about her personal experiences.

After months of writing and sharing her story verbally with fellow cancer fighters, in December 2013 Linda felt inspired to channel her gratitude into a book. “I wanted to give other people the hope and healing I received at CTCA,” Linda shares.

Linda spent a little bit of time writing every night before bed. “It became a nightly devotion for me,” she explains.

In March 2014 Linda received bad news. After a scan, cancer was found in her stomach area. She underwent surgery and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy. Through that second diagnosis, Linda continued to write. She finished the book, titled it, YES I CAN-CER, My Journey of Hope and Healing and self-published on Amazon in November 2014.

“I believe writing is a form of art—the art of expression. To me, that is why I wrote the book. It expresses who I am,” Linda explains.

Linda says the reaction to the book has been amazing. She carries copies with her to give to people who need it, specifically people going through cancer treatment.

For those who want to document their cancer journey, Linda recommends starting a journal and writing in it every day. She also encourages patients to take lots of pictures as visual reminders. Most importantly, Linda urges those who want to share their story to simply write and share their treasures with the world.

“It feels awesome for me to sit and just write. I look at writing as how I express myself spiritually, physically and emotionally,” says Linda. “Writing is a form of healing.”

Sharing on the Social Stage
Leah Sherman, ND, is not afraid to open up about her cancer journey. By day she works at CTCA in Goodyear, Arizona, as a naturopathic physician. By night she writes, vlogs (video-blogs) on Tumblr and shares photos on Instagram, documenting her experience with breast cancer.

Dr. Sherman writes about her experiences and creates videos on her Tumblr account, titled “Just a Little Bump in the Boob” (bumpintheboob.tumblr.com). Her blog outlines everything she is going through with treatment, along with details from her personal life.

“Making videos is a way for me to just talk and be honest,” explains Dr. Sherman. “It’s also a great way for my friends and family to see me and see that I’m okay.”

In addition to the blog, Dr. Sherman has found a community of support on Instagram, the popular social media site focused on photo sharing. “Instagram is another easy way for me to update people on what’s going on. I can provide a visual as well as a little blurb about what’s happening,” she explains.
Some of Dr. Sherman’s posts (her Instagram handle is @drleahs) include photos from chemotherapy, a selfie of her ringing the bell after her last chemotherapy treatment, images from her wedding day and more.

Dr. Sherman loves Instagram because she finds that she is able to reach people beyond her own network by using hashtags (tags that allow others to search a specific keyword or topic). She adds hashtags like #breastcancer and #chemo on her posts to help other women with breast cancer find her and make a connection through their shared experience.

The support and encouragement she receives from perfect strangers continue to inspire Dr. Sherman to share her journey through social media: “I love it!” she says. “People you’ve never met before cheer you on, and I do the same for them.”

Finding Friendship and Community Through Facebook
As a registered nurse for 37 years, taking care of others has always been a major part of Sheila Herron’s life.

After three shocking cancer diagnoses (squamous cell skin cancer, lung cancer and a rare breast cancer) over the past five years, Sheila has maintained a positive attitude—and a strong desire to help and support others. Her commitment to supporting other patients led Sheila to begin sharing her cancer journey online as soon as she was diagnosed. She saw sharing as a way to help other people who may be going through their own difficult journey.

“The scariest part of cancer is the unknown,” Sheila explains.

A conversation with Jill Tompkins-Gullickson, a fellow patient at CTCA in Zion, inspired the creation of an online platform for patients to write about their experiences and find support. Sheila says that Jill, an active Cancer Fighter Ambassador, came up with the idea of launching a private Facebook group for CTCA patients, caregivers and employees to provide an outlet for those facing cancer to connect and express themselves. The group, CTCA Zion Friends, now has nearly 700 members.

“The group has become a clubhouse where people can share their hearts, their fears, their grief or their questions,” says Sheila.

CTCA Zion Friends is a private and closed group on Facebook, but if someone is interested in joining, he or she can simply submit a request and will be approved by one of the group’s members.

“I think it’s important that people on this cancer ride share their journey,” Sheila explains. “It is very healing to try to help others who are going through what we’re going through. We are all in the same boat.”

The group is lively and extremely active, with multiple people posting every day. New CTCA patients come to the group to ask questions and meet fellow patients. Current patients share experiences, worries and triumphs. Survivors offer love, prayers and encouragement. Caregivers also actively participate in the group, sharing their own unique experiences and offering support to those who need it.

“Everyone is so supportive,” Sheila raves. “It has turned into something really powerful and exceptional.”

“When I learn something, sharing it with someone else whom it might help is just wonderful,” explains Sheila. “It has been emotionally really good for me to know that I’m helping people. Helping others has helped me too.”

Finding Power and Positivity Through Words
Glisson explains that writing can sometimes be more powerful than simply talking about feelings out loud. “People are not always as honest about their emotions, especially when talking to friends and family who champion them to stay strong and positive. It’s hard to allow yourself to say ‘I’m not feeling very strong in this moment’ or ‘I’m scared.’ But when you can get it out on paper, you don’t have to edit yourself or worry about how it’s going to impact another person’s emotion.”

Writing also allows patients to put their worries down on paper to make room for more peace and positivity. “Writing gives a patient the opportunity to look past what’s happening in the present and look forward to a future where cancer isn’t the prominent thing in their life,” concludes Glisson.

Looking for tips to get started with documenting your cancer journey? Read Write Your Cancer Narrative for a simple guide.

References
1. Parker-Pope, T. (2015, January 19). Writing Your Way to Happiness (blog). New York Times. Retrieved March 22, 2015, from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/writing-your-way-to-happiness/?_r=0
2. Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

 

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