Breast Cancer Survivor Advocates for Writing to Foster Healing

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Food media critic Sandra Lee is the latest to join an estimated 49,000 women diagnosed annually in the United States with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a relatively common form of breast cancer whereby the abnormal cells are contained within the milk ducts.

As a transpersonal psychologist, blogger, and advocate of writing for healing and transformation I vividly recall my own breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 47 in 2001, just months before the devastation of 9/11. It’s like I had a double whammy of losses to deal with.

While Lee opted for a bi-lateral mastectomy, I opted for mastectomy only of the side that was afflicted with cancer. It was a gamble, but now 14 years later, I am doing relatively well and breast-cancer free. One of the things that helped me heal during and after my cancer journey is my passion for writing.

Ever since my mother gave me my first journal at the age of 10 to help me cope with my grandmother’s suicide, I have used writing to get me through difficult times. I journaled through my breast cancer experience and later combined my journal entries, narrative, and poems into a self-help memoir called Healing With Words: A Writer’s Journey (Loving Healing Press, 2010).

Diana Raab
Diana Raab

This book shares my experience with DCIS and also offers tips and writing prompts to others who may also want to chronicle their own journey, either for their own safe-keeping or for possible publication. More recently, I received confirmation regarding the healing powers of writing, as a result of my doctoral research and the writing workshops I teach.

My dissertation was entitled, “Creative Transcendence: Memoir Writing for Transformation and Empowerment,” and my research results showed that writing about loss or difficult experiences is very transformative.

Some of the reasons were that writing gives us a voice, it allows us to dig deeper into our emotional truths, it helps us come to a new understanding about our experiences, it helps us view experiences in the larger context of our lives, it helps memories become more clear, it is a way to reclaim and acknowledge our pasts, and it makes us realize that relationships do not end with death.

Losing a breast put me in touch with other losses in my life and through the writing process, it inspired a great deal of self-reflection. I used writing as my lifeline. Even though for many years I had turned to writing during challenging or difficult times, during my breast cancer journey, I realized that I viewed the practice of writing to be like taking a daily vitamin. It was healing, detoxifying, and essential for my optimal health.

As the only woman in my family ever diagnosed with breast cancer, my journal provided a safe haven and platform to validate all my feelings. At the same time, I was lucky to also have a nursing background so I could offer the clinical and personal support other women needed during this time.

The book’s final chapter, “A Tale of Two Cancers,” addresses coping with depression and my subsequent diagnosis with multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer unrelated to breast cancer, five years after my breast cancer diagnosis. The book also addresses the importance of ongoing optimism in the face of diversity, the commitment to regular journaling, exercise, meditation, strengthening diet, and surrounding oneself with positive people.

I believe that healing begins from within and my teachings and writings stress the importance of a strong mind-body-spirit connection. To bring awareness to this connection, I advocate writing about the breast cancer experience to nurture the creative spirit and also to foster self-reflection.

The best way to begin writing is to find a notebook or journal that resonates with you and match it with a favorite pen. Begin by setting an intention for the day. Before starting to write, incorporate a centering ritual into your practice. Some examples of centering rituals might include lighting a candle, burning incense, having a cup of tea/coffee or doing yoga or stretching exercises. It is important to date all of your entries. Start by writing 20 minutes a day and increase as needed. It is suggested that you do not rip any pages out of your journal.

You can begin by writing this on the top of your page, “Today I feel like…” and see where it takes you. The nice thing about journaling is that, unlike an essay or memoir, there is no beginning middle and end. You can just write what pops into your mind, like what Virginia Wolf called, “stream of consciousness writing,” and others call “free writing.” Sometimes writing a letter to someone can also be very healing, whether you decide to write it or not. The person can be alive or dead, but the important thing is that you get your words onto the page.

Diana Raab is an American author, poet, lecturer, educator and inspirational speaker. Diana Raab was born in Brooklyn, New York of two immigrant parents. She received her B.S. from Cortland State University in Health Administration with a minor in Journalism. She received her R.N. degree from Vanier College in Quebec, Canada and took her licensure in French. In 2003, she earned her MFA in Writing from Spalding University’s Low Residency program in Kentucky. She has a Ph.D. in Psychology with a concentration in Transpersonal Psychology from Sofia University in Palo Alto. Her research involved the transformative and healing aspects of memoir writing.