If you’ve heard anything about War On Cancer, you’ve probably noticed that we talk about writing and storytelling as an effective coping mechanism for life with cancer. But why is this the case? What is it about writing and storytelling that helps us?
The benefits of “expressive writing” and storytelling
The act of writing and putting words to thoughts and feelings creates a private space to work through what’s going on in our lives under the surface. These past few weeks, we’ve covered the stages of grief when going through cancer, or having a loved one do so. From being diagnosed to accepting the reality of cancer in our lives, many feelings like shock, denial, and emptiness can arise. Maybe we’re not sure what we’re thinking or how we’re feeling.
Writing allows for us to explore those grey areas by providing a clear structure to explore the unknown. You know the feeling of “it’s hard to put my finger to” or “I can’t explain it”? Even though humans are hard-wired to understand things by organizing our experiences, traumatic events often compromise the brain’s ability and clarity to process experiences well. Putting words to what’s going on is a tool that enables us to define what it is we’re experiencing, which helps us better understand ourselves and the world we inhabit. By putting our thoughts into words, they become known to us, and therefore become easier for us to understand and cope with them.
Expressive writing and storytelling has also shown to improve our physical wellbeing, not just our mental health. A multitude of studies conducted over several decades show that expressive writing can strengthen the immune system of people who experience cancer, PTSD, or depression. It can even lead to improved mood, sleep, and memory, and decreased chronic pain and inflammation.
War On Cancer’s Co-founder, Fabian Bolin, started a blog after being diagnosed with cancer to process his trauma: “The best coping mechanism for me was writing about it. It’s an effective way of processing emotions and even combatting minor depression. It gave me a place to vent all the frustration and darkness I was feeling and, perhaps most importantly, a place where I could feel less alone as I was able to interact with others who were responding to my posts. This works both ways: every time we share our journey or story, we are reaching out a hand of support to others who might be experiencing something similar.” A few years later, War On Cancer was born to help others cope with cancer by sharing their story. Check out Fabian’s profile on War On Cancer.
Another upside to expressing our thoughts, whether written or verbal, is that we stop rumination, overthinking, and worry from overwhelming us (which are all bad for mental health). By allowing our inner world the space to express itself and make our thoughts known to us, we shed the shame we may feel and the power those thoughts have over us. In addition, when we open up privately about what we’re going through, we become more able to open up with others, which fosters understanding and connection between you and the world around you. This makes cancer less lonely.
We are the authors of our stories
After finding the words to formulate our feelings, our sight adjusts from capturing the small to witnessing the big picture. We begin to find meaning in the experiences life throws at us and start building a narrative – the hardship becomes a piece of the puzzle.
It’s important to remember that we can’t change the cancer diagnosis. But telling your story – written or verbal, with yourself or others – has the ability to change you. Your perspective is paramount to facing adversity. Storytelling helps to find that perspective, your voice. Rather than allowing cancer to dictate your life, you find a way to weave the experience into your greater narrative and choose what role the experience plays in the story of your life. You are the author.
When something happens to you, it sits on top of you like a rock. If you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. But as you begin to tell the story, you climb out from under that rock, and eventually, you sit up on top of it.Donald Davis, Author and Storyteller
In this way, you allow yourself to feel and slowly accept, in full, your experience. You can also slowly start to see patterns in your thoughts or feelings if you write or share regularly. Your story evolves with you, so continue telling it. It becomes a part of you – a stepping stone, a turning point, a new beginning.
Sharing your cancer experience can help others and the world
Turns out, storytelling isn’t only beneficial for you. It’s not news that humans have told stories for thousands of years. But storytelling’s power also lies in its ability to forge connections between people and breeds empathy.
Oftentimes during cancer, people can feel misunderstood, lonely, or isolated. Storytelling is a way to highlight your perspective and let others see the world from your point of view, which builds bridges and creates common ground. As Brandon Stanton says, “The heart of a story is the struggle […] our struggles connect us. Recognizing pain in another person is the primary driver of empathy. It’s the beginning of compassion. And the more vividly that pain is expressed, the more clearly it’s articulated, the more compassion it elicits.”
Humans are bound by the things we’re taught to hide – the difficulty, the hurt. Storytelling is the way in which we discover that we’re really not alone in all of this. There’s always someone else who’s been there who gets what we’re feeling. Storytelling is the open door to new connections and letting others know they’re not walking alone in the dark.
On a larger scale in the cancer space, storytelling from someone who knows what life with cancer is like also allows healthcare to gain a deeper understanding of the reality and what needs to be improved to make cancer more bearable. The power of your voice can’t be overstated in cancer care (check out War On Cancer’s Health Study feature that’s amplifying the voice of everyone affected by cancer to healthcare).
Telling your story gives you the ability to process everything you’re experiencing and ownership over the narrative – the things you lost, the things you’ve learned, and the things you gained.
Tell your story on the War On Cancer app, to help you and others.