The Surprising Way Writing Helps Cancer Survivors



I love to write. 

I've always turned to pen and paper to discover and process my feelings, to make my desires and goals real and sometimes, even to make them known.  As a child I loved getting new journals and notebooks with colorful pens in my Christmas Stocking.  The memory of taking them to a corner and being alone with my dreams feels warm and safe.

Creating The Brio Blog brings the same warmth to me now.  My work is emotionally challenging.  I take care of people with cancer and a lot of them die, people I knew well and tried to help.  Thoughts of them, so many people, pop in and out of my head as they please. 

Remembering the people is good but they're a veritable crowd and on bad days, they're a mob of ghosts.   I'll never harden to their suffering but I witness it, over and over, over so many years.  I put the wreckage somewhere, exactly where I don't know, but the wreckage finally made it here.  I'm spinning it into gold.

Brio is the product of a desire to make the survivors' lives better for their sake and for the fallen because that's what can be done.  Like my younger self with my diary, I make the desire real with words.  I covet the opportunity to write for you, to turn what I know into something like help.  I express ideas so you might understand something new, so you feel better, so you know you have a friend. 

Because you do, have a friend.


Cancer Survivors Should Write Too.

In my blog post 5 Ways Cancer Survivors Can Be Mindful, I detailed how writing is a form of mindfulness beneficial for cancer survivors.  Studies show that people with cancer who engage in expressive writing have fewer physical symptoms, better physical function, and fewer doctor visits.  Furthermore, the benefit is immediate, can be felt after a single writing session, and the effect is lasting. 

But what is the mechanism?  Why does writing help?  This is not truly known and is difficult to study. 

I reviewed one study in the psychological literature which showed self affirmation (our need to protect ourselves) and the combination of cognitive processing and discovery of meaning through writing buffered stress and were responsible for the health benefits, emotional and physical, of expressive writing in cancer patients.  

This to me makes instinctive sense.  Writing allows you to speak to yourself in a protective way and, from this place of emotional safety, allows you to explore your cancer experience in all its horror and hope, and to acknowledge and create boundaries around its meaning in your life.

How to Start Writing

The best place for cancer survivors to start writing is exactly where they feel comfortable.  If you're like me, I type quickly and like the feeling of pouring my thoughts onto paper in real time.  This is why I type on the computer to accomplish my writing.  But there is great benefit to writing with pen and paper, I think more so than typing, because the physical act of writing taps parts of your brain that are otherwise inaccessible. 

Identify five minutes in your day that you can set aside for writing.  A good time may be when you wake up or just before going to bed.  It should be a quiet time for reflection and solitude.  If it's hard to carve out time, it may help to associate it with another habit like morning coffee or brushing your teeth.

What to Write?

Maybe you know exactly what to write.  If so, go for it. 

It's also possible you'll stare at the paper and be completely stumped.  Just know there's no right or wrong here.  Start with "Dear Diary" and, as if writing a letter to a friend, describe your day. 

If you need an assignment, here are some journaling prompts to get the juices flowing:

  1. If you could tell your cancer one thing, what would it be? Why?

  2. In exactly one year, you will be spending your ideal day, doing exactly what you want in your life, relationships, and career. Describe that day. What is the one thing you will do today that will bring you closer to your ideal day?

  3. What do you fear? What gives you courage?

  4. How has cancer changed you? How has cancer made you more yourself?

  5. What are you waiting for in your life? What do you want to leave behind?



If you share my love of writing, the practice of keeping a journal could certainly benefit your health as you heal from cancer treatment.  Writing has the potential to improve your physical and emotional well being and may open doors you didn't even know existed.

To explore even more ways to conquer fatigue and thrive after cancer, download Brio’s FREE Morning Checklist - A 7 Point Solution to Cancer Survivor Fatigue. Click the button below to download now.

Thanks for reading, Survivor.