Simply writing down our experiences can help us express, admit, and work through our emotions. For women who have gone through breast cancer, writing can be a powerful avenue toward healing and self-acceptance. But how much healing writing provides is affected by the story we choose to tell.
It’s not spelling and grammar that are important; in fact, those should probably be left by the wayside so that you can focus on expressing yourself freely. Writing allows you to be completely honest, and you can express things in writing that are too painful to say out loud. But writing alone won’t necessarily help you improve self-compassion and self-confidence. For breast cancer patients, writing is more likely to improve mental health if it’s used to construct a compassionate story rather than to dwell on pain.
The My Changed Body program has found a simple method for women who’ve gone through breast cancer to use their writing to decrease anxiety and increase self-compassion.
My Changed Body Program
Many women have trouble accepting themselves after cancer treatment and struggle with the changes to their bodies. Scars, hair loss, lymphedema, and other side effects can change the way a woman thinks about herself, and that negative perception can rob her of the enjoyment life once offered.
Researchers designed the My Changed Body program to help women harness the power of writing to change the way they felt about their bodies. To study the effects of the program, researchers enlisted the help of 304 Austrailian women who had undergone treatment for stage I to III breast cancer. Ninety-eight of the women had also been diagnosed with breast cancer-related lymphedema. All participants reported having negative feelings regarding their post-treatment bodies. Before the trial began, researchers assessed the women’s body image distress and body appreciation.
The women were split into two roughly equal groups. The first group did one 30-minute, multi-section writing activity. They were asked to write about stress related to their body perception and cancer treatment. In subsequent sections of the exercise, the women were asked to respond to five self-compassionate prompts. The prompts were designed to help the women write about their negative feelings with a kinder and broader perspective.
The second group of women was also asked to do a 30-minute writing activity, and they started with the same prompt asking them to write about stress related to body perception and cancer treatment. But they weren’t given additional prompts—they were instructed to keep writing about their body-image stress for the entire 30 minutes.
The women had the same level of body-image stress before the study, but researchers found distinct differences after the study at the 1-week, 1-month, and 3-month assessments. Women who had responded to the My Changed Body prompts had improved body appreciation at all three assessments as compared to the women in the control group. Women with lymphedema who responded to the My Changed Body prompts had the largest improvement in anxiety and self-compassion metrics.
Researchers felt that it was especially encouraging that women were able to achieve these improvements using their own writing, without the help of a doctor or specialist.
The study is not the first to show that writing can improve health and help people heal, but the My Changed Body program was designed to specifically help breast cancer patients harness the power of their writing to positvely impact their own emotions about their bodies.
In his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, Professor James Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, talks about how constructing meaning from a painful experience is key to improving health.
After conducting experiments on the ways writing about traumatic experiences can affect people, Professor Pennebaker writes, “…We found that three aspects of emotional writing predicted improvements in people’s physical and mental health: accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, acknowledging the negative parts, and constructing a story over the days of writing.”
The My Changed Body Program leads women on this journey. The program helps women acknowledge their negative experience, but also move to a place of broader perspective and greater compassion. Writing that helped women move through their negative emotions had a more positive effect than simply writing about their negative emotions.
For women interested in the power of writing for stress relief and coping, it may be helpful to have a writing plan, even if it’s a loose plan. Professor Pennebaker shares tips for healthful writing on his website, but it may also be helpful to simply be mindful about your writing and where it is leading you.
Writing about deep pain and anger shouldn’t be avoided, but the results of the My Changed Body indicate that moving to a place where we can write about broader meaning and perspective will have a better impact on our health and self-acceptance.
Whether you write in a journal, on a computer, or on post-it notes scattered around the house, writing can be a powerful avenue for you to take control your own story. Acknowledge the negative and then let your pen lead you to a place of acceptance—rather than around in circles.
Keep fighting, friends.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.