Writing to Heal with Margie Davis

WebMD Live Events Transcript

From her own healing experience as a personal essay writer and from the perspective as a teacher of personal essay writing, Margie Davis realized that cancer patients everywhere could benefit from writing about their experiences.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Good evening all! Please welcome Margie Davis.

Welcome, Ms. Davis.

Davis: Thanks, I'm glad to be here.

Moderator: Can you begin by telling us how writing can aid cancer treatment?

Davis: Expressive writing has been shown to help people heal, both emotionally and physically. When people write their deep thoughts and feelings about traumatic events, and cancer is certainly a traumatic event, their blood pressure decreases, their heart rates slow, and they produce more lymphocytes, which is a type of white blood cell that boosts the immune system.

Moderator: What is your background in this?

Davis: I have been writing professionally for 25 years. For the past seven years, I have been teaching personal essay writing, first in person, then on the Internet. Cancer touched me for the first time when my father died of brain cancer in 1991. More recently, a close friend of mine has been battling cancer for two years. Drawing on what I know about personal essay writing, and the research that has been done in the field of expressive writing, I realized that virtually any type of cancer patient could benefit from writing about their cancer experience.

Moderator: Have you always chronicled your own life through journaling?

Davis: I have kept journals for a few decades. I have a stack of them, although I rarely go back and read them. Journaling, though, is not necessarily the same as expressive writing. When you write in a journal, you can put in anything -- what you did that day, a list of things to do, etc. But when you do expressive writing for the purpose of healing, you focus on stressful or traumatic events, and explore what you think and feel about them. Some people like to go back and reread their journals. That's not necessary to reap the healing effects that I described earlier.

Moderator: Is it the process there that's important, or should you keep an eye towards producing a finished book or project?

Davis: It is most certainly the process of writing that produces the healing. The research that was done in the 1980s by Dr. James W. Pennebaker and his associates showed that what was important was translating the emotional experiences into language. By putting their traumas into language, whether written or spoken, people came to a clear and coherent understanding of what happened and they were then able to move to a resolution. Even if there was no meaning to an event, it became psychologically complete. Now some people may choose to publish what they write, and there are many stories out there about surviving cancer that give hope to patients who are currently undergoing treatment. I lead a course called Writing About Cancer in which I give writing topics with prompting questions to my students each week and they write about that topic. I encourage them to write, not for an audience, but for their own exploration, to exhaust all their thoughts and feelings about the topic, so they don't have to obsess about it anymore.

scrapy1_WebMD: Are we just talking "cancer" here, or do you think writing helps heal all ailments?

Davis: A year ago the first study was published linking expressive writing to disease. People with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis were found to have a lessening of symptoms after doing this type of expressive writing. I believe that this type of writing, writing deep thoughts and feelings about stressful events, is beneficial to everyone, including those with any type of serious illness. The Pennebaker studies were done on people from all walks of life and all showed similar results.

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