Writing your way through cancer

Tuesday 14 January 2020

I think we often take writing for granted. Many of us use writing every day, by texting, social media, shopping lists, diaries, calendars, and emails. Meanwhile, if you’re living with cancer, you may be writing down and juggling key events, appointments, tests, and hospital visits.

However, writing can serve another function.  It can be something you can do for yourself, and it has psychological benefits. You certainly don’t have to be a skilled wordsmith. Things like spelling, grammar, rules, neatness – they’re not relevant, unless you want it to be. It’s more about you -writing your way through and beyond cancer.

If you’re a carer, a family member of friend – cancer affects you too.  Sometimes, in midst of all the worrying about the person with cancer, your own needs and worries can feel selfish. They’re not, of course, but you may find you need that emotional release.   Writing can be one way to help.

Creative writing is a way to explore thoughts, ideas and emotions that you might otherwise find difficult to express.  Traditionally, creative writing means using our imaginations and ideas to write stories, memoirs, poetry and prose. However, others use journaling, blogs and diaries, as their inner release and exploration.

Creative writing may embrace therapeutic writing – sometimes the two are interchangeable.  Your writing may explore deeper issues, things that you find difficult to discuss – cutting through the emotional filter we put on speech.

Creative writing and cancer - how can it help?

Writing can allow you to explore the power of language and words - and be a way of conveying feelings and observations. It has been shown to have health benefits - and this includes both your physical and mental wellbeing.

Creative writing has been found to help relieve depression, anxiety and pain. For people living with cancer it offers a release and exploration. It can be a way to write about things which may feel painful to talk about. Writing can help you slow down your thoughts, and relax. It can also build up your confidence and self-esteem.

Tips to start creative writing

If you’ve decided you might like to try writing, you’re already halfway there.  You may decide to use a notebook, and pen, or type into an electronic device. Choosing your pens and paper, journals or diaries can be part of the creative process.

The action of writing and the content, is much more important than spelling, typing errors, crossings out, etc, especially at the beginning. It’s like using a muscle; it takes a while to build up writing confidence.

People sometimes worry where they can write - or what they will find to write about.  If you carry a notebook with you, you can often jot ideas, snippets of conversations, or your thoughts, whilst sitting in waiting rooms, clinics and cafes. These could be ideas to use later on.

Sometimes people find it easier to start writing if they have exercises to do or writing prompts. There are lots of ideas on the internet, and many creative writing books and courses available, including:-

Reading and writing Cancer : how words heal (2016)  Susan Gubar

The story you need to tell (2017)     Sandra Marinella

365 writing prompts (2017)            Thomas Media

You may find keeping a diary or journal helps provide a place to ‘dump’ the thoughts of the day, and keep a record of your experiences. Many people create a blog. You may prefer to keep your writing personal to you, or value sharing it with others. Having someone read your words can be powerful and supportive. However, reading back your own words can give you new insights, and be rewarding.

Maggie’s and creative writing

Most of our Maggie’s Centres hold creative writing sessions.  Janet Ellis, (former Blue Peter presenter) held a pilot workshop at Maggie’s in 2017, called ‘The power of words’. It was very successful – exploring the words we use in cancer to either inspire or discourage us. You can watch a video about the workshop. Visit your local Maggie’s centre, and find out about the range of creative therapies available, as well as our other workshops, courses and drop in sessions .

Meanwhile, here at Maggie’s Online Community, writing is our bread and butter. People use discussions, conversations, and journals to explore all aspects of their cancer experience.  We’ve recently added a Creative writing/Art thread for people to post some of their work.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Warm wishes


Links updated April 2020

Useful links

The power of writing (blog)       Cancer.Net

Writing through cancer    Sharon Bray

Creative writing (publications)     Macmillan cancer Support

The power of words (Janet Ellis)  Maggie’s  (You Tube video)

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