jhpcancerWhen you hear the words “journaling” and “cancer” together, do you instantly imagine an unorthodox Bridget Jones Diary plotline?

Dear Diary,

So, I’m pretty pissed that I have cancer, and if one more person tells me to try yoga, I’m going to lose it and eat an entire chocolate cake, which I’m pretty sure is the opposite of yoga.

Walls punched: 1.

Manicures ruined: 1

Chocolate cakes eaten: Mind your own business, Diary.

Bridget may not make that entry anytime soon, but experts say it would be cathartic for her – and even life changing. “Writing down your thoughts gives you an opportunity to work out your feelings and emotions, which may help you relax and find reasons to be happier and more hopeful about the future,” shared Crystal McCown, social work counselor fellow, on MD Anderson Cancer Center’s website, which describes methods like “gratitude” journaling and “stream-of-consciousness” journaling.

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But journaling may feel like the last thing anyone wants to do after hearing “cancer.”

“I think sometimes when someone is initially diagnosed, it’s hard to journal because [the diagnosis feels] just so big and impacts so much of your life, from worrying about whether your daughter will get breast cancer, to the threat to your own survival,” said Barbara Tako, a writer, cancer survivor and author of “Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools.”

Writing was already part of her life, so journaling came easily for Tako. “I found it helpful because it helped get thoughts and feelings out from spinning around in my head and down on paper instead,” she shared.

But she was still surprised to learn how powerful journaling could be for her. “As I learned to live with my diagnosis and go through treatment and [adjust to life] after treatment, it was helpful to go back and read where I had been compared to where I am now.”

“The entry I keep returning to is the one where I first write about how my breast cancer diagnosis impacted (forever changed) my life,” she shared. “I thought that entry would be pages and pages. It is not.”

Tako shares a sample of that entry:  

“I hate that I am a glass-is-half-empty sort of person and that everyone says that to beat it, it really helps to have a positive attitude. I feel like I am going to turn inside out and explode. It isn’t that I am not trying. I am seeing a therapist, taking anti-anxiety medications, exercising when I can, staying hydrated, trying to eat well, and managing the medications to keep the chemo side effect symptoms manageable. I am trying the guided imagery and positive affirmation tapes too…”

“I return to this entry because it is finite,” she explained. Every time I reread these two pages, cancer gets weaker and I get stronger. Cancer brought on a lot of changes in my life, some good and some bad, and it is finite. The active treatment period(s) have end dates, and time does help make things easier to manage.”

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Tips for journaling:

  • Don’t pressure yourself. “Write when you are in the mood to express yourself,” Tako said. “Don’t worry about quantity or quality or even schedule,” she added. “You may write as little as a few words or as much as a few pages.” Limiting yourself to one line a day can kick-start your journaling by removing pressure to write pages.
  • Grammar rules, be gone! And don’t worry about complete sentences. “This is for you, no one else,” Tako said.
  • Don’t worry if days, weeks or months pass between entries. “A journal does not need to be an everyday event… When I need to ‘vent’ or feel like I might explode, I write, and you can too!”

“There’s no wrong way to journal,” MD Anderson’s McCown said. “Research shows that taking as little as 20 minutes a month for 3 months, to write will produce long lasting benefits to your physical and emotional health.”

Do you journal? Share in the comments below how journaling helped you through your own diagnosis — or any method you found helpful.