Finding our Voice — Journaling Throughout Illness

As many of us have learned the hard way, our lives can change in an instant. One day we’re busy taking care of our families, managing work and school schedules and trying to stay focused on the next forty-eight hours. And then a terrifying diagnosis all but stops us in our tracks. We hear those three words from our doctor and suddenly everything shifts: You have cancer. It’s as if the air has been sucked out of the room, and time comes to a screeching halt. There are a-million-and-one thoughts running through our mind all at the same time, yet we are unable to find words to express our emotions. What happened to our voice?

Make no mistake, what we’re experiencing is trauma. About 80% of women experience post-traumatic stress disorder after a breast cancer diagnosis. PTSD can make it difficult to think clearly, manage daily tasks or simply function. Thankfully, according to experts, patients and thrivers, there is hope. It turns out journaling, expressive writing, or keeping a diary can positively impact our health. And new medical research is backing up the data. To learn how journaling can support us, in all of the challenges we face, read on.

Good Medicine

Keeping a journal takes the scary, painful, harsh, joyous and hopeful moments out of our minds and releases them into the real world. It certainly feels like good medicine, and according to early research, writing has been shown to reduce unscheduled visits to the doctor. Breast cancer patients even report fewer symptoms when practicing expressive writing compared to those who don’t.

Pen to Paper, Apps or Blogs

A traditional paperbound journal for our thoughts is intimate and can give us a break from the digital distractions competing for attention. But many patients are finding journaling apps, like DayOne, helpful as they offer daily reminders and templates. Our pages may be deeply personal and private, or the complete opposite like a blog for our loved ones to read. There’s really no wrong way to approach it. MD Anderson offers several tips for trying different mediums here.

Taking the First Step

When and how often should we write? What should we focus on? Should we consider sharing our thoughts? Our journey, like our journal, can be as public or personal as we choose. It is up to us. Right now, we’re focused on taking the first step. And it doesn’t need to be a big one. After all, studies show that simply writing for as little as 15 minutes three to five times over the course of a four-month period is enough to lower blood pressure. Once we take the first step and begin writing, it’s up to us exactly what our journal contains.

For those big decisions down the road… One study found that 76% of adults who spent 20 minutes writing before a medically necessary biopsy were fully healed 11 days later. Our journal can become a place to mentally unravel our fears and concerns about upcoming procedures, tests, and decisions. We have so much to process that a journal is a great place to build a pro/con list or simply write about our deepest feelings.

  • "Dear journal, I am not entirely sure what to do."
  • "This is a big decision."
  • "I wish I knew for sure that I was making the right choices about my body."

For keeping track of so much information…

Difficulty remembering important details about our diagnoses and treatment, confusing dates and appointments and generally feeling “foggy” are common when experiencing the shock and trauma of a cancer diagnosis. These symptoms could also be signs of chemo brain. It’s different for everyone, but the struggle to keep everything together amidst all the activity sometimes feels like its own separate disorder. Our journal might look more like a calendar of important events and dates. It could accompany us to visits with our medical team to help us write down details we don’t want to forget about later. Or it could keep us company as we spend time in doctors’ waiting rooms.

  • “I need to remember this new symptom for my doctor.”
  • “Writing this down so I don’t forget…”
  • “New appointment next week and it’s at a different time.”

For all the things we want to say, but can’t… There are five stages of grief on the Kubler-Ross scale. Our least favorite is anger yet feeling angry is not only completely normal during this process, it can also be productive. We’re scared, emotional, and our body is experiencing so much. While it may be difficult for our friends and loved ones to witness our pain, expressing our fears in a healthy way can be a huge reliever of stress. Sometimes, we simply need to vent, and writing can be a healthy outlet for those difficult emotions.

  • “Dear journal, today was not so great.”
  • “I can’t believe my friends would say that.”
  • “Ugh! It’s none of their business. Why do they keep bringing it up?”

For all the things we’re grateful for… The healing power of gratitude has been studied in recent years as a way to cope with anxiety, promote healthy brain chemistry and reduce worry for people facing cancer or another challenging health crisis. When we’re at a loss as to what to write, it never fails us to use gratitude as a writing prompt.

  • “It felt amazing to laugh again today. More of that please.”
  • “Dear journal, today felt like a win.”
  • “My family brings me pure joy. I love them so much.”

Our journal, like the journey we’re taking with our treatment, may look different along the way. We’ll likely go through various stages, each filled with new emotions. Adapting to the beauty of change is part of who we are, and we hope that, through writing, we can find our voice again. And with it, our strength.

“A journal is your completely unaltered voice.” – Lucy Dacus