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Writing Therapy for Cancer Patients

Many types of alternative therapies, or therapeutic strategies that go beyond traditional talk therapy, can be useful for patients going through cancer treatment and living with cancers like mesothelioma. While the main focus of treatment for cancer patients is on the cancer itself, evidence is mounting to prove that addressing the patient’s mental, emotional, and social health can also promote healing and overall well-being.

One type of therapy, or a strategy that can be used in therapy, that helps all types of patients, including those with physical illnesses like caner, is writing. Research has shown that writing in a therapeutic way is not just good for mental health; it may even improve physical health, boost the effectiveness of the immune system, and promote healing. There are so many potential benefits of writing, and there are no reasons not to try it.

Writing as Therapy

Writing therapy is one of several types of creative or expressive therapies, therapeutic techniques that are guided by trained therapists and that make use of the creative process to explore emotions and cope with negative feelings and experiences. Writing can be used for all types of patients and can be adapted to meet a wide range of goals, such as reducing anxiety and fear, managing stress, coping with a trauma, or coming to terms with a poor cancer prognosis.

While anyone can write with therapeutic goals, the best outcomes result when the patient is guided by a trained and licensed therapist. This should be a therapist who is also experienced with creative therapies, including using writing as a therapeutic tool. Writing therapy may be used in one-on-one therapy sessions, in group settings, or even as one-time therapeutic workshops for cancer patients.

Writing for Expression

One of the most obvious benefits of writing therapeutically, and one that helps a wide range of patients, is that it helps people express things that are difficult to think or talk about. When living with cancer, most patients have a lot of negative feelings: fear, anxiety, and anger. They may find it difficult to talk about these feelings or even to confront them within themselves. Being asked to write about it forces the patient to put into words something that is very difficult to confront. It also helps them better communicate these difficult feelings with others, such as a therapist or a loved one.

Writing Improves Mental Health

Most research that has investigated benefits of writing therapy focused on patients in therapy for mental illnesses. The results are positive, though, and can be extended to people living with cancer who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Studies have found, for instance, that writing therapy helped reduce stress, symptoms of depression, fear, and anxiety. Even without a diagnosis of mental illness, most cancer patients experience these emotions and writing can help reduce them.

Writing to Overcome Trauma and Stress

Researchers have found that writing in a therapeutic way can help people overcome trauma, stress, and specific events that have caused psychological harm. For cancer patients, writing can help them come to grips with the stress of having this terrible disease. Some people cope better with the mortality and the changes associated with living with cancer, while others struggle. There is evidence that writing therapeutically and specifically about difficult experiences and stressful events can help people learn to cope and to see psychological and emotional improvements.

Writing and Physical Health

The benefits of therapeutic writing obviously include emotional benefits, but research has also found they include physical changes, including boosting the activity of the immune system. Many of the breakthroughs and new areas of treatment for cancer involve the immune system. This is because the immune system is already designed to attack pathogens and cells that are not healthy, so harnessing it to attack cancer cells is an exciting new way to fight tumors.

More than one study has come to this conclusion, although there is disagreement as to why writing might have this physical effect. Regardless of the reason, this is an important finding for cancer patients. They need the immune system to fight against cancer, but they also may suffer deficiencies in immunity as a result of treatments like chemotherapy. Anything that can boost the immune system is beneficial for cancer patients.

Other studies have used writing therapy for patients with illnesses including HIV/AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis. In these studies, patients were asked to write about stressful life events for 20 minutes per day for several days. As compared to a control group, these patients had better physical outcomes related to their illnesses. They either had improved health markers, or their health markers did not deteriorate as they did in the control group.

Writing Improves Quality of Life

One study of expressive writing engaged several adult cancer patients to determine how writing before medical and treatment appointments could benefit them. The results were positive and demonstrated that writing for therapy, even without the guidance of a therapy session, could improve the overall quality of life for participating patients. The study relied on patient self-reporting, and those who completed the writing assignment said they felt better physically. They also reported feeling calmer and more reflective about their illnesses.

Writing as therapy is not a new idea, but it is gaining more followers as evidence continues to accumulate to prove that it can have so many positive benefits for such a wide range of patients. While writing without guidance may provide benefits, the best outcomes result from working with a trained therapist who can guide patients to write in a way that is truly therapeutic, expressive, and reflective. If you are living with mesothelioma, try journaling and writing, but also reach out to your medical team to find out if they know of any writing programs for patients or therapists who use writing.

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