Therapeutic Writing in Group Work For Patients With Cancer

Journaling can offer patients a safe space to express their emotions without fear of judgment.
Journaling can offer patients a safe space to express their emotions without fear of judgment.

For many people in distressing and potentially traumatic circumstances, journaling can offer a safe space to express and process emotions without fear of judgment or risk of burdening loved ones.1 Although several studies have more specifically researched the effect of journaling on a patient with cancer's ability to cope with their diagnosis,2 less attention has been given to the potential added benefits of sharing that writing with others who are facing similar struggles. 

For nearly a decade, CancerCare has offered an online-based therapeutic writing group for people receiving cancer treatments or who have recently completed treatment. The group lasts 15 weeks and is built around a structured program of readings and writing exercises that focus on specific aspects of the cancer experience. One chosen topic, for example, is the experience of sharing diagnosis news with the other people in your life; after reading some related articles and book excerpts, group members are asked to consider the following questions and share their written responses with the group:

• Whose reaction to your diagnosis was most surprising?

• Which person did you find most difficult to share the news with?

• What was most helpful to you when sharing the news of your diagnosis with others?

Another group topic focuses on the concept of time as it relates to waiting ― waiting for medical news, test results, certainty, or clarity. One exercise in this topic is metaphorical: participants are asked to write a piece from the perspective of a “rope about to snap,” giving them license to project some of their own feelings of fear, uncertainty, or anger onto this fantasy scenario, and to express those emotions from a different perspective.



As participants add their written responses to the group space, other group members have the opportunity to offer words of support and acknowledgement to one another, ask questions, or provide additional feedback (although the feedback is not about the mechanics of the writing itself as this is not a writing workshop and participants are not seeking to improve their writing craft). Feedback, instead, focuses on the emotional content of what is shared and the creative process. If participants are struggling to complete any of the exercises, there is a designated space where they can request support from the moderator and one another.  

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