Cancer Treatment: Writing to Heal (cont.)

smersh_WebMD: I always think about writing, but don't know where to start. Any advice?

Davis: Well, if you have or have had cancer, you could pick up a copy of my new book, The Healing Way, A Journal for Cancer Survivors. This first-of-its-kind, structured journal has over 60 topics with prompting questions to help patients and survivors write about their experience. People with any type of serious illness can actually write about most of the topics in this book. If you are well and you want to explore expressive writing, I lead personal essay writing courses at America Online and at my web site, You can subscribe to my online newsletter by sending an email to me at and I will let you know when courses open for registration. If you want to write on your own, pick major events in your life, the milestones, e.g., leaving home, getting married, illness, death, birth, and write your deepest thoughts and feelings. These feelings can include joy as well as the negative emotions. The important thing is to dig deeply and see what's there and to let it go.

smersh_WebMD: What do you think about the idea of putting up a webpage instead of just writing on paper?

Davis: Instead of just writing on what?

smersh_WebMD: paper.

Davis: Oh, paper.

Davis: A web page assumes an audience other than yourself. The important part of expressive writing for the purpose of healing is to write the very deepest thoughts and feelings. If you write, and I don't mean you personally, for an intended audience, you may, consciously or otherwise, not get to the very truth of your emotions. You may write to please your audience. Now if that's your intention, that's okay, but that's not what expressive writing for the purpose of healing is about.

scrapy1_WebMD: I'd have to destroy my entries daily so as not to hurt or anger those left behind at my death.

Davis: And that may be a good idea. Not everyone who does this type of writing wants or needs to keep what they have written. Privacy is certainly important, and I recommend finding a place to keep your journal so NO ONE reads it. It's more important to write and shred than to not write at all. I just read this week in the paper about a study that showed that anger may harm arteries and produce heart disease. Some people have a hard time expressing themselves in words, and even if they can speak okay, they don't always have a sympathetic ear to speak to. Writing is a way to get things off your chest, to unload without burdening anyone else. In addition to leading Writing About Cancer courses, I lead a course called Writing for Personal Caregivers at my web site, People who take care of loved ones are a group of people who sometimes have no one to talk to about their role as caregiver. They don't want to burden the people in their care. Writing for them makes a lot of sense, particularly in light of the first study done recently at the University of Pittsburgh that shows personal caregivers at risk for early death because of their stressful situations.

Moderator: Since you're not necessarily writing for an audience, should one worry about grammar and punctuation?

Davis: That's a great feature of expressive writing. No one cares about grammar or punctuation. Anyone who can write, in any language, can write expressively for the purpose of healing. There are other benefits of this type of writing, too. It's a flexible activity that people can do almost anywhere: at the kitchen table, in bed, in a waiting room, during medical treatments like infusion therapy and dialysis. It's a creative and therapeutic activity that you can feel good about after you do it.

melvin_webmd: How do the online courses work?

Davis: In Writing About Cancer and Writing for Personal Caregivers, I email weekly topics with prompting questions to the class. They have a week to write their personal narratives. Then those who choose to share what they have written email their narratives to each other. There is a private class message board for classmates to post messages to each other. I have two classes going right now and the class message boards are pretty busy. They create an intimate community through their sharing. Not everyone chooses to share what they have written, and that is okay. There is no pressure to do so. In Writing Personal Essays at America Online, I send weekly writing topics and prompting questions along with a lecture on a different aspect of personal essay writing each week. Participants have a week to write a personal essay and submit it to me for a general critique. This is more of a course for people who want to learn to write and possibly publish personal essays. I also teach an advanced essay course and a course on revision at AOL. At my web site,, I offer a self-study course called Your Life in Essays, where I send quite a bit of lecture material and topics with prompting questions for eight sessions. At the end of the self-study course, participants email me their very best essay and I provide a detailed critique.

scrapy1_WebMD: I feel my grown children are tiring of my obsessing about aches and pains. This will be a great way to vent on my own. Thanks

Davis: Most of my personal essay writing students are middle aged and older. My oldest student was in her 90's. It seems to be in middle age when we have a desire to examine our lives with reflection. And learn how we got to be who we are.

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