Journaling: A Starter Kit for Patients, Survivors and Caregivers

By David Tabatsky

Whether you call it expressive writing, journaling or keeping a diary, writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings can be a therapeutic tool for those struggling with cancer. A research study in The Oncologist medical journal found that patients who participated in a single 20-minute writing session improved their outlook on cancer and may contribute to improved physical and emotional health by easing stress and trauma. Considering these proven advantages, it seems like a good idea to explore the value of journaling as well as the beneficial tools writing offers for improving communication between the parties involved––patients, survivors, family, friends caregivers and medical staff–– all coping with the challenges of cancer.

So how do I start?
Writing can be intimidating!
My feelings? Really? I have to share my feelings?

Of course we do. It’s really the only way to move forward with the positivity one needs to deal with fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Because cancer comes out of the blue, we can simplify that complex tapestry of emotions by breaking down the writing process into manageable and meaningful steps.

Finding an entry point is often the first and biggest hurdle. It’s a bit like jumping into a cold lake––a daunting idea, alarming at first, more comfortable soon enough and exhilarating before you know it.

We begin with a simple exercise (”I AM”) designed to help you connect with your own singular identity and experience.
Fill in the blank:
I AM _________________________________________________

As human beings, we naturally fall into obvious categories, with some determined by gender, race, age, religion, profession, political leanings and sexual preference. Some of us place great meaning in those labels, while others put more emphasis on their roles as parents, children, public servants and/or social activists. How society identifies each of us is one thing we must cope with, especially when the labeling becomes “flavored.” On the other hand, the way in which we define ourselves carries much more weight.

“Who am I?” touches us on spiritual and pragmatic levels. It can be both an existential and a moment-by-moment question. In times of great change and stress, such as in response to a diagnosis of cancer, our sense of self will be questioned, and the ways in which we previously identified ourselves may be turned upside down. Whether you are a patient or a caregiver of any kind, it’s vital that you see life with clear eyes, and that begins each morning when you look in the mirror.

“I AM” can start at your emotional center or it may take off from a more philosophical place. It may incorporate a wide-angle view or focus on the minutia of the moment. There are no rules. But there are compelling reasons for getting in touch with yourself, especially when your very existence is being challenged.

Now add three more versions of “I AM” and then pick one of your responses and embellish it! Water it and watch it grow. Don’t shy away from details and try to include any trouble spots you might be ignoring. If you can share these thoughts and discoveries with a loved one and/or with a doctor, please do so. It will enrich the connections you have already developed.

One little tip: Find a comfortable spot when you write and try using pen and paper. We become addicted so easily to our electronic devices. Sometimes, using a good old- fashioned pen and paper will help us relax and open up to new ideas.

Before you go too far on this journey, you may choose to sit up straight and face your fears. Journaling can help you do that. Right here and now, write down your top five fears. Just releasing them from your head onto the page can help. Releasing them to a place where you can read them and see them a bit more objectively will help you keep them in their place––to be handled and accepted. So just write them down right here and now–1––2––3––4––5––blood on the page. If you feel it, write it. If it hurts, say so. Why hold back? This is your life. No one has to read it, unless you need to share, unless that will help ease the burden and give you a head start on moving forward, into the light. Then, by all means, write and share and write some more.

Simple things help too, like a “To Do” list. If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with cancer, then your “To Do” list has suddenly expanded. That usually includes an entire new set of protocols, from monitoring doctor’s appointments and medication regimens to communicating with family, friends and colleagues about how cancer––directly or indirectly––is affecting your life.

Keeping track of it all can be daunting and a journal can really help. In fact, do yourself a favor and get organized. Write down what you need to do and when, who you want to talk to and how you wish to approach them. Each “To Do” on the list is bound to beg for more. But more is good. It means you’re getting things done, including the challenging tasks you may ordinarily avoid. Let your list encourage you to live in the moment and guide you with courage into an uncertain future. Take a few minutes to write down the small things, and while you’re at it take a stab at the big issues, too. Surprises are waiting with each step you take.

One more little tip: Leave notebooks and pens around the house and use them!

All of these journaling ideas are for you, whether you are scared or brave or both. You already know that you are somebody; that your life is to be cherished by you, your loved ones and the human community. So write for your life and say, “I am here. I am alive. I write. Therefore I am.”

Category: Cancer

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