Journaling May Help to Heal Emotional Burdens of Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • It seems that the older I get, the more I have to write things down in order to remember them. Where before I’d blithely hop into the car and drive to the store with my mental shopping list for a half-gallon of milk, a jar of spaghetti sauce, and some peaches–and actually come home with said items–now, if I want any chance of bringing home what I need, I have to write it down. I write myself lists of errands, notes for what I want to include in e-mails to friends, even reminders to stop for gas, despite the gas gauge buried on “E” right in front of my eyes as I drive. Why, then, was it so hard for me to write down what I experienced during cancer treatment?
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    I started out strong, beginning with the day of my mammogram callback. I wrote down what I was doing, what I was feeling, what the doctors said, for about 3 months. I covered the biopsy, D-Day (diagnosis day), and lumpectomy; wrote about my fears as the path through treatment got more complicated: mastectomy, reconstruction, the need for further treatment. But the day I got out of the hospital, with a brand new breast and the specter of long months of chemo and radiation ahead, was the day I wrote my last word. My cancer journal ended smack-dab in the middle of treatment.

    What happened? It just became too hard to write, as chemo made me sick and bald, and radiation burned my skin and terrified me with thoughts of future cancers caused by this supposed cure. I was too close to it all; I couldn’t get away from the physical discomfort, the mental “what ifs,” the emotional “awfulizing.” I just plain didn’t have the energy it would have taken to examine my ravaged body and mind dispassionately enough to write about them with any coherence. Thus I did my final six months of treatment without writing a word.
    And I regret that. Now, looking back, I wish I had written ANYTHING about what I was going through: a scrawl, disconnected words, vague impressions. Because if I had, I’d be able to revisit that dark time from the safe place I’m in today. It’s like going through the haunted house at the amusement park: there’s a strange satisfaction in being uncomfortable, but knowing that it’s very temporary, and that YOU control the level of fear. I went through it; I came out of it; it made me stronger. I can remember many things, but regret that I’m missing the little details of treatment that could bring it all into focus.

    Two years ago, I took a giant step to correct those six months of undocumented treatment. I participated in a writing workshop aimed at breast cancer survivors. Over the course of 3 months, eight of us wrote about our experiences with cancer, and it proved to be a catharsis for us all, unearthing feelings we’d buried, exposing them to the light and making them less scary, less painful. The workshop made me realize the power of words; that the act of putting your emotions down on paper is a kind of healing. Since I began writing about cancer again, I’ve never stopped; this blog is another step in the healing process, which has gradually shifted away from my own healing, to helping others heal. Now, as the ripples from my words spread and spread, I can’t imagine NOT writing about cancer.

  • You don’t have to be a good writer to express yourself. Talk into a cassette recorder; put your thoughts into a letter, and mail it to yourself. Ignore the bad spelling and questionable punctuation, the incomplete sentences. But let it out: the fears, the self-doubt, everything negative you’ve been carrying. You may just find that exposing your burden to the light of day makes it ever so much lighter.
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Published On: August 01, 2006