Keeping a Journal to aid you in Breast Cancer Treament

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • April 23, 1998 Thurs. 7 am


    "I have breast cancer.  Dr. F’s nurse called a little after 5 pm to tell me. . . .

    C was in the bathroom flossing his teeth, but he came back into the bedroom because he could tell something was wrong.  When I told him, he was stunned and said, ‘I can’t believe it.’  We mainly didn’t say anything, me sitting on the bed by the phone and him standing at the foot of the bed, with me trying to repeat the conversation with the nurse and him asking questions I couldn’t answer . . . . I was dressed to go to class; another five minutes and I would have been out the door.  Then I wouldn’t have breast cancer, right?  At least I wouldn’t have had it on Wednesday.  You don’t have it until someone tells you.  Before that you have a suspicious mass or, in my case, a suspicious red circle on your skin.”

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    So began my cancer journal eleven years ago.  April 20 is both my birthday and the day my surgeon called to say they were sending my pathology slides out for a second opinion.  His willingness to spend 45 minutes discussing what we would do if they did show inflammatory breast cancer was the day I realized that I was in big trouble.  But as my journal shows, it took the final call April 22 to make it real.


    I used my journal to record what was happening to me and to explore my feelings, and I’m not alone in finding a journal helpful.  Quite a few studies have found that journaling improves the lives of patients with serious health problems, including cancer. 



    An article at, the website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, looked at several of these studies.  The article reports one study found that women who wrote about all their feelings related to their breast cancer had fewer physical symptoms and fewer unscheduled visits to their doctors than the women in the control groups.


    The article lists other ways journaling can help. 

    1.  Writing can help you think through your questions and goals.  In this way, the journal becomes a rehearsal for conversations with . . . doctors. It can also be a way to plan ahead for scheduled appointments, to be sure the time with the doctor is as informative as possible.”

    2.  Journaling can give you a sense of perspective and help you see how you have progressed over time.

    3.  A journal gives you a place to vent without hurting anyone else.  During a cancer journey there will be times when you feel furious, scared or hurt, and a journal will let you pour out those feelings safely.

    4.  If you are a person who has trouble talking about emotions, pen and paper may work better for you.

    5.  Writing down thoughts can get them off your mind.  Putting the worry on a piece of paper can let you then focus on something else.


    I found all of these benefits in my journaling.  Some people like to write in a journal at the same time every day.  I used it mainly at crisis points when I needed to vent or think through an issue.  There is no one best way to keep a journal. 


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    You can use a cheap spiral notebook or get a beautiful bound book of blank pages.  My oncologist gave me a journal specifically designed for breast cancer patients with quotes and lots of room to write.  I did some of my journaling in a bound book, but I also wrote on scraps of paper when something was bothering me and stuck it in the journal later.  Some people even tear up and throw away the pages after they write them.  Often the act of writing is as valuable as keeping a record of what you wrote.


    Write whatever comes into your head without worrying about spelling and punctuation.  This writing is for you.  No one is going to grade it.


    Don’t have time or privacy for journaling?  Try to do at least a little writing.  A 2008 study at Georgetown University found that even a short writing session at the doctor’s office improved patients’ outlook on their disease. 


    An article by Rick Nauert reporting the study quotes Nancy P. Morgan, M.A., writing clinician and director of Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Arts and Humanities Program.  “Previous research suggests expressive writing may enhance physical and psychological well-being.  But most of those studies involved three to five writing sessions that were conducted in a controlled laboratory setting. Here, we found that just one writing session in a busy cancer clinic where the patients are frequently interrupted can still have a positive impact on patients.”


    This upcoming week is going to be a busy one.  My birthday is tomorrow.  I'm delighted to be getting old!  Eleven years to the day after I received that phone call, my husband and I will hop on a plane to go to see our daughter and son-in-law and play with our grandbaby.  Next weekend, we’ll head to a different part of Boston for our son’s wedding.  Saturday night I plan to dance at our son’s wedding to a wonderful young woman.


    Eleven years ago I could only hope for this week.  My journal records my deepest fears from those days.  This week I’ll be recording joys.

Published On: April 19, 2009