Finding Comfort Through Therapeutic Writing

A cancer diagnosis can elicit a wide range of feelings, many of which can be difficult to express. Writing therapy, also called expressive writing, during your cancer experience can help you understand your diagnosis, work through those feelings and reflect on what the disease means to you, your family and your friends.

According to several studies, writing therapy can even help boost your emotional well-being, reduce your cancer-related symptoms and improve your physical abilities. In one clinical trial recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, people with cancer who participated in writing therapy rated the severity of their symptoms (such as pain and distress) much lower than those in the control group. They also scored higher in their physical abilities (such as walking up stairs and carrying groceries). In another study, people with cancer who wrote about intensely emotional experiences for 15 minutes per day for four consecutive days made fewer illness-related trips to the doctor. Their lung and liver functions also improved, and their blood pressure decreased.

Effects like these are not uncommon. As a result, cancer centers across the country have started to include expressive writing programs as a complementary therapy option to help people process their diagnoses and cope with them more effectively. Best of all, it doesn’t cost anything and it doesn’t require you to be a proficient writer either. There are many ways to express your feelings through writing therapy:


You can track your symptoms, side effects, medication adherence, pain levels and more, which will help you become a more educated and empowered patient. Share this information with your health care team, so they can monitor your progress accurately and effectively and provide additional help, when necessary. Do it each day. It doesn’t require a lot of time. Just one word and a number for your pain level for example is sufficient. It has been proven that if patients wait until a week or two and try to retrospectively recall their symptoms, they will be inaccurate.


Reflecting involves looking back on your experiences and analyzing how they made you feel, how they fit together and what you can learn from them. You can focus on philosophical questions, such as “How did this happen?” and “What does it all mean?” Or you can focus on smaller, more direct questions, such as “Should I try to get more exercise?” and “Am I adhering to my medication schedule?” “What can I do to reduce my risk and my family’s risk of getting cancer in the future?”


What you share is up to you. Remaining completely silent about your cancer diagnosis and treatment experiences can make you feel isolated and may force others to speculate about your condition, so sharing some information is recommended. But, you don’t have to be an open book. It’s up to you to decide what information to share and with whom, as well as the timing of when. Usually patients will wait until they have a confirmed diagnosis and treatment plan, and then make others aware. You may even want to jot down the reactions you received from specific friends and coworkers, as well as family members.

Consider asking a friend or family member to help you update others about your condition using a weekly e-mail, social media site or an online blog. These tools allow others to stay informed about your situation without feeling intrusive. They also eliminate the hassle of conveying the same message multiple times.

Maintaining your personal relationships is vitally important for your emotional health, and writing therapy is another way to keep open those lines of communication, especially when in-person visitors are not recommended. You may decide to share other things beyond medical updates, such as what books you’re reading and what recipes you’re enjoying, on e-mail or through social media.


When you want to avoid adding to your loved ones’ emotional load, you can turn to personal expressive writing. Expressive writing allows you to document your emotional developments, manage your worries and doubts, and work through all of your diverse thoughts and feelings, such as hope, anxiety, sadness, fear, joy and relief. It may also help alleviate some of the unsolvable questions churning in your mind, such as “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” Keeping a private journal will allow you to write more deeply and honestly than you might in your public messages.

No matter what you choose to write about, never worry about perfection. Right and wrong do not exist in the realm of therapeutic writing, so simply write what you feel.

When you have completed your acute treatment, go back to the beginning of your expressive writing and read over the parts of your cancer journey you chose to write about. You may even choose to continue to do journaling as you take the next step of transitioning into short term then long term survivorship.

For those with advanced metastatic cancer, expressive writing is also very therapeutic. It gives you perspective. Again what you choose to share is your personal decision. Consider however if you want to also write to specific family members and friends about the importance they have had and will continue to have in your life, while you are still here and even after you are gone.