Writing for wellness

January 19, 2022

Woman writing with pen and paper

Back in 2001 when I was first diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), in addition to having a supportive family and healthcare team, writing proved to be a great source of strength and became an enormous part of my healing journey. I dealt with many strong emotions, including anger and sadness, and viewed writing as a healthy outlet for these powerful feelings. Writer Virginia Woolf confessed that she wrote in her diary “to bring order to the chaos in her life.” And that’s just what my journal did for me.

As those of us who have been stricken with cancer are well aware, there are no magic wands to obliterate the affliction. However, through self-care, we can try to cope. Whether it’s psychotherapy, massage, or creative expression such as writing, journaling, crafting poems, drawing, painting, or sculpting, you can find your passion. If writing is your calling, then you understand how the mere act of putting your words on the page is a productive and grounding way to give voice to your feelings. If you decide to share your words and emotional truth publicly, like I have done for more than four decades, then you know how this can empower us and those who read our words. During my healing journey, I sometimes found it difficult to immediately find the words for what I was feeling. If I was patient, the words would eventually emerge. Also, I felt empowered by writing down my emotional truth about my journey.

I began journal writing at the age of 10 when my mother gave me a Khalil Gibran journal to help me cope with the loss of my grandmother, who was my primary caretaker. It was then that I realized the healing power of writing. Thus, it was no surprise that the first thing I did when returning home after my abnormal mammogram was to pull out my journal. From then on, I made a habit of writing every morning, when my thoughts were clearest. There were times when I felt so alone during my cancer journey, and my journal became my best friend. I also used journaling to validate difficult feelings of being the only one in my family to have ever had cancer.

Author Diana Raab Collage of three images

In the writing workshops I teach, I instruct my students that journaling is sort of a reality check. Writing about the challenges and/or traumas in our lives is not only cathartic, it can help provide answers to some mysterious questions. Journaling brings you face-to-face with your own truths and what has happened to you. The simple act of moving your pen across the page can be soothing and meditative.

My surgeon knew that I was a writer and encouraged me to chronicle my experience. He even asked me to mail him my musings, so he could understand the feelings of a woman who lost a breast due to cancer. Because my writings were intimate, there were certain things I preferred not to share. So, in addition to the journal entries written for him, I kept a separate journal for myself that included personal poems crafted during and after my breast cancer journey. Some of them eventually made their way into my self-help memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.

I began each day chronicling my physiological and emotional health, fears and concerns. I often wandered off into stream-of-consciousness writing, or what is sometimes called spontaneous or automatic writing. Some of these writings ended up as published articles or poems. Although Id written a couple of books prior to my diagnosis, I had no intention of turning my cancer journey into a book. But, many colleagues and friends suggested that my writings would help others navigate their journeys. With their encouragement, Healing with Words was released in 2010.

Collage of Author Diana Raab with two books

As I say in my book Writing for Bliss, a writing reference book, If you write about something you are presently going through, you will more than likely be writing an account of the experience and chronicling the facts, whereas if you allow some distance from the experience before you write about it, you will have gained perspective and will more easily be able to incorporate reflections. The distance also allows you to have some control over your experience, rather than having the experience control you.”

Surviving the emotional roller coaster of having a breast removed brings to mind my cousin Dorits motto: From all bad comes good.” Ive learned to be mindful of what makes me happy, and all the things that bring value into my life. In addition to daily meditation and listening to healing spiritual music, I realized that my writing grounded me and helped me survive. I also learned the importance of surrounding myself with positive-minded people who provided healing energy.

Last year I celebrated 20 years as a breast-cancer survivor. I always acknowledge the importance of writing for healing. I continue to do a lot of gratitude journaling and this many years later, I am even more grateful for my life.

Tapping into your passions and self-care activities are very important, and even more important is to remember to celebrate life at every opportunity!

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