THE BLOG
02/04/2013 06:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013

Keeping a Cancer Journal: Your Private Healing Journey

Special for World Cancer Day/February 4th: Dedicated to dispelling negative myths and misconceptions about cancer.

There are few life experiences as shattering as receiving a diagnosis that you have cancer. Even an early stage diagnosis can shatter your sense of safety and stir up turbulent emotions. If you have had any frightening medical experiences in the past, those memories can re-trigger those earlier traumas, further overwhelming you with emotions too deep for words.

As life as you knew it ends and your life as a cancer patient begins, you will need--and receive -- a lot of support. Fortunately, there are many organizations and support systems offering cancer patients, their families and caregivers with support groups and individual counseling. For more than 20 years, I have had the privilege of coaching cancer patients with an eclectic blend of hypnotherapy, meditation, guided imagery, and journaling. Everyone who has kept a journal has told me that it has provided them with support, comfort, and strength in those hours when they felt most alone. A journal can help to distract attention from the pain by focusing on something good that happened during the day. It can provide a spark of light in the darkness and it can even make you laugh. And there are numerous on the positive healing power of laughter.

There is also clinical research that now provide evidence that keeping a journal can help a cancer patient express deeply held feelings that may be too difficult to voice aloud. It can also help a patient to navigate a complex inner landscape that must be traveled alone.

A Georgetown University Medical Center study
published in The Oncologist in February 2008 found that cancer patients who participated in journal-keeping reported that writing helped to change the way they thought about their disease. Three weeks later, many participants reported improvement in their physical quality of life. In a pioneering study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in October 2002, researchers at the University of Kansas psychology department found that a statistically significant percentage of early-stage breast cancer patients who participated in the project reported "reduced medical visits for cancer-related morbidities."

Starting a journal requires just a few minutes a day. You can write by hand, sitting up in bed, or use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Remember to date each entry so that when you read it later on, it will help you to recall how you felt at that time in comparison to what you are experiencing now.

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

1. Morning Pages: When you wake up, write three pages... whatever comes into your mind... dream fragments, tasks for the day, feelings, moods, etc. Just three pages. Every day. First thing.

2. News and Goods: Each and every day write down ONE GOOD THING that happens. It can be a friend or stranger who smiles at you; a compliment; something you see on TV or online that cheers you up. It can be the way your pet curls up next to you to comfort you. It does not have to be long... short and sweet works just as well. ONE GOOD THING. Every day.

3. Mandala Sketches: On a fresh page each day draw a large circle. Inside the circle, draw whatever comes into your mind. It can be an image or a splash of color or an abstract shape. Underneath the circle, give the sketch a title and write down the date and time. Look at your mandala, the sketch inside the circle. Select the three most prominent colors. On the bottom of the page, scribble a splash of these three colors. Next to each color, write whatever emotions or impressions are connected to that color. You will develop your own personal emotional palette which will enrich your understanding of yourself and your dreams.

4. Gratitude Journaling: Find at least one thing to be thankful for each day. Write it down. This MAY OR MAY NOT be different from your News and Goods.

5. Dream Journaling: Keep a notebook next to your bed. Whenever you wake up, write down the first two or three words that come into your mind. These words can be used to trigger a more complete recall of your dreams. After a catastrophic event, it can take months for your mind to 'metabolize' the complicated emotions connected to your illness. Your dreams are your mind's way of working through and digesting these issues.

6. Collage Journaling: Keep an envelope in your purse or carry-on for items that you will collage: receipts, jottings, sketches that you doodled while on the phone, clippings, phrases or images from newspapers or magazines, menus, sugar packets, matchbooks... anything that catches your eye. Cut them into interesting shapes and glue them onto a page with that day's location and date. This free-form journal looks simplistic but it engages both sides of your brain. When you look back at the page, your right brain will see the patterns, colors, and "big picture." Your left brain will zero in on the phrases and words.

7. Humor Journal: When one of my patients was diagnosed with breast cancer, she named her tumor "Agnes" and wrote a story about her. Agnes lived in a trailer park and spent most of her time hanging out on a tacky chaise lounge. The comic dialogue helped my patient maintain her emotional balance while going through surgery and radiation. One man created a "Top Ten List of Positive Things About Leukemia." Number One? You don't have to worry about getting cancer.

For World Cancer Day, www.fitango.com has developed a free online ActionPlan for keeping a cancer journal: http://bit.ly/11r4vGh