Keeping a journal leads one cancer survivor to transform her cancer journey.

By Beverly Kirkhart

In 1991 the storybook existence that I was living shattered. My marriage ended in divorce. I was forced to file bankruptcy, losing my home and my business. At times I found myself living out of my car. Through the worst of it, I used to joke with my friends and say, “At least I have my health!” Then came the devastating news from my doctor: “Beverly, you have breast cancer.”

Stunned, I cried out to my doctor, “This can’t be happening to me. You must have the wrong pathology report. Why me?” My doctor looked at me with compassionate eyes and replied, “I don’t know why you, Beverly. Only God knows why. But I will do everything humanly possible to cure you.”

My doctor’s words were loving and sincere, and I knew he really did care about me and that he would help me fight for my life. But his words didn’t take away the sadness, fear, and anger that I was feeling. I found myself sliding down a deep, dark hole of self-pity. Ultimately, I was able to turn this setback into a comeback through the support of family, friends, my compassionate medical team, and through the emotional release and spiritual peace that I found through writing about my experiences in a daily journaling meditation.

It was difficult for me to verbalize my anger, negative thoughts, and sadness for fear of being judged or criticized. My medical team and breast cancer support group encouraged me to release these thoughts and emotions. One day, out of shear frustration, I let my thoughts flow out on paper. Feeling a sense of release and peace, I started writing daily in my journal. As I wrote, I began to understand why I felt the way that I did. My daily writing helped me to clear out my negative emotions, which made room for healing images.

If you’re facing a similar sense of frustration when it comes to expressing your feelings about your experience with cancer, writing may be one way for you to release your emotions and make space for a more positive outlook. If you do choose to write, you may need some guidance as you attempt to tackle the overwhelming emotions that your diagnosis has triggered. Here are a couple of issues that may emerge for you as you begin to write, and some steps you can consider taking to move beyond them so that you can learn to turn the setback of a cancer diagnosis into a comeback.

  • The first step for many of us begins with facing our fears. We must experience these overwhelming and frightening thoughts in order to process them. Writing about what you’re afraid of, sad about, or what is hurting you is scary because it makes it more real, but it will also allow you to move toward the next step in your journal meditation.
  • After you’ve taken the time to analyze what those fears are, realize that it’s okay to feel angry, hurt, and sad. It’s okay to feel like a victim. But it’s not okay to become stuck there. Moving beyond these emotions enables us to make the steps to take back our life. Focus on what you want next, what excites you, what brings you joy, and what you look forward to. Having faced your fears and written through your worries, you can now write about what you want to see in your future.

How we face our challenges is different for each person. There is no right or wrong way to experience this process. There is no formula for letting go of our emotions and moving through the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. In my experience, as I expressed myself in my journal, I came to realize that my identity wasn’t that I was a person with cancer; rather, I was a talented and creative individual, and cancer was only part of my journey.

Journaling is an effective way to help you learn about yourself. By recording your reactions and thoughts, you may uncover many interesting things about yourself. Some of the benefits you might discover through journaling are:

  • Greater insight into your feelings
  • A way to express difficult feelings in a safe and private place
  • Freedom to freely express yourself without being judged or criticized
  • A way to make sense of life events, find meaning in them, and learn the lessons they have to teach
  • An awareness of your situation that leads to problem solving

I got more than I bargained for in my cancer journey. I survived, yes, but as a result of my daily journaling, I also discovered my strengths and took ownership of my feelings, which helped me to speak up and become an advocate for my health. In an odd but wonderful way, cancer changed my life for the better. It gave me the glorious opportunity to experience the benefits of journaling and discover a passion to share with others. This led to the publication of my journal in book form, entitled My Healing Companion.

When, in 1991, the life I had built for myself shattered, I felt as though I had lost everything. However, in the end, I found that my cancer journey and the gift of journaling that I gained ultimately gave me a much richer life. I found that the act of recording the words to express my feelings and observations about the emotional, physical, and day-to-day challenges I was facing brought me tremendous relief and clarity. I rediscovered the beauty that lies within me, and joyfully came to recognize my God-given gifts.

Writing in a journal can be a life-changing experience. You, too, can discover your beauty within, along with the peace and clarity you will find when you commit to writing daily. What are you waiting for?

References
1. Pennebaker, JW. Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science.1997; 8:162-166.
2. Lepore, SJ. Expressive writing moderates the relation between intrusive thoughts and depressive symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 1997, Vol. 73, No. 5, 1030-1037.
3. October 2002 issue of The Journal of Clinical Oncology, Annette L. Stanton, Ph.D, of the University of Kansas in Lawrence http://www.jco.org/cgi/content/abstract/20/20/4160.