Thirty years ago, when my husband died in a drowning accident, I turned to what had always been a lifeline in times of struggle: writing. I filled dozens of journals with outpourings of grief, sorrow and questions, before my writing gradually shifted into poetry or memories of our life together. As my writing changed, my grief began to lessen; my perspective shifted from “why me?” to a sense of possibility, of new beginnings. Several years later, when I was told I had cancer, I turned again to the refuge I found with pen and paper. Writing, as so many of us have discovered, provides the safety to express the feelings we find so difficult to say aloud, a way to make sense of our emotions as we translate them into words.
“What I was looking for during 10 months of chemotherapy and radiation,” novelist Alice Hoffman wrote, reflecting on her cancer experience, “was a way to make sense out of sorrow and loss.” (Writers on Writing,” New York Times, August 2000).
Hoffman expressed what poets and novelists alike have long acknowledged. Writing can help us heal. It is a way to make sense out of trauma, illness and loss. Expressing those difficult emotions, as psychologist James Pennebaker described in his book, Opening Up, getting them “outside” the body, results in real health benefits. “Give sorrow words,” William Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth. “The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.”
Our literary giants implicitly understood what research now confirms. “When we begin to see our suffering as a story,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her famous diaries, “we are saved.” Indeed, as psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues have discovered, the most beneficial kind of writing is concrete, detailed, descriptive, and involves a coherent story.
Why is story so important? Our stories are uniquely human. They help us make sense of life. And, as the men and women in my expressive writing groups discover, in sharing our stories and poems of the cancer experience, we’re reminded that we are not alone, that others have suffered as we have. Our stories are, as literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote in his cancer memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “antibodies against illness and pain.”
How can you begin? My advice to the individuals who attend my “Writing through Cancer” groups is simple: Any way you can. Find a quiet place and time to write. What matters most is that you write—freely, deeply, without any restrictions or judgment placed on yourself. Often, those first entries are emotional outpourings. That’s fine. Once you’ve written for a while, then re-read it. Underline those sentences that “speak” to you. Set the time for 10 or 15 minutes and begin again, but now, use one of those sentences as your starting point. Let the story of your experience emerge. Write, at least until the time is up. Read it over. You’ll be surprised at what happens!
Still stuck? Prompts—suggestions for writing—can help. Here are a few to get you started.
- Begin with, “When the doctor said, ‘cancer,’ I … ”
- Write about hair – having it and losing it.
- Write a letter to your body. One cancer survivor I know wrote a love letter to her missing lung.
- Imagine cancer as a character. Talk back to it.
- Write about fear. What keeps you awake at night?
- What are you grateful for?
Through writing, the detrimental effects of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions are weakened. Writing out of your cancer experience helps you make sense of your illness, find new meaning in your life, and reclaim your voice, which is sometimes silenced in the wake of a cancer diagnosis.
Your stories matter. Whether you write in a journal, on a computer, or in an online blog, your stories are testimony to your unique experience. “This is my life,” your stories say. “This happened to me. This is what matters.” Write your way through cancer. It’s good medicine.
Dr. Sharon Bray is the author of two books on the benefits of writing during cancer and co-editor of an anthology of writing by Stanford Cancer Center patients. She has been leading expressive writing groups for cancer survivors for the past thirteen years at Stanford, Scripps Green, and UCSD Cancer Centers in California. Her weekly blog, www.writingthroughcancer.com features writing prompts for anyone living with cancer or other illness, trauma or difficult life events. Sharon also leads three annual writing retreats for Stanford Medical School faculty, students and staff and teaches creative nonfiction (online) for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. Sharon earned her doctorate in applied psychology from the University of Toronto and studied creative writing and transformative writing at University of Washington, Goddard College, and Humber School for Writers. For more about Sharon, see www.sharonbray.net.