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Strive to Thrive: The Many Benefits of Self-Expression

By on November 13th, 2013 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

Part 1 of Jean Kane’s series, Project Strive to Thrive: Ideas for Moving Beyond “Survival” After Breast Cancer

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

No one realizes the precious nature of life better than someone diagnosed with cancer. But cancer can also cause a wild range of emotions. From the time you’re diagnosed with cancer, through treatment and, really, forever after, your feelings can range from fear, sadness, and frustration, to anxiety, bewilderment, and anger.

Your health care team has guided you through the medical aspects of handling your disease and its side effects, but many times doesn’t focus on how to handle the emotional aspects of dealing with cancer. How to deal with the emotional fallout, so to speak, that can occur at diagnosis, during treatment, and especially after treatment concludes. It is my goal, through a series of blog posts, to explore how cancer survivors can find joy, optimism, and well-being and go beyond merely surviving cancer and strive to thrive.

In each blog post I hope to share a research-proven strategy for dealing with the emotional aspects of breast cancer and practical tips for incorporating that strategy into your life. A series of ideas to help you live your “one wild and precious life” to the fullest.

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During my treatment for breast cancer, when I was bald, sick, and felt isolated, my husband suggested I start writing about my experience to raise my glum spirits. I believe he meant for me to start journaling, but I started recounting some funny and not-so-funny incidents to distant family and friends through an update I sent out in an email once a month. Although I ostensibly began this update to keep friends and family “abreast” of how I was faring, it became a catharsis for me. Through writing about my breast cancer experience, I could organize and bring some perspective to the chaos that had become my life.

For instance, my weekend emergency hospital stay for some chemo side effects was “Greg and My Get Away Weekend in the City” and my mother’s growing frustration at our extended wait for chemo to begin, where she accidentally punched a nurse, became “If You Want Better Service at Chemo, Bring Alma With You.”

I also included stories about people who had impacted me and recounted how thankful I was for all the support, prayers, and blessings I had received.

What I was doing was expressing my emotions through writing, which researchers have found can give breast cancer patients a greater sense of well-being and help them feel physically better. Although the studies on the benefits of expressing emotions have been small, they have consistently shown an improvement in both positive emotions and mood, even for women with metastatic disease. For women with early-stage disease, one study found that women who expressed their emotions through journaling had fewer negative physical symptoms and fewer visits to medical providers.

How can you use self-expression to improve your well-being? First, you have to feel comfortable with self-expression and believe it is a modality that will rejuvenate you.

I thought my husband’s suggestion was worth a try and believed simply putting together an email might lift my sagging spirits.

Additionally, you have to find a convenient method of self-expression as well as a means of self-expression that you are comfortable with. In the studies, women have benefited from journaling privately, creating websites and blogs, and attending classes on journaling. Even joining discussion boards at sites like Breastcancer.org or using Facebook can prove helpful.

Some of these studies tracked women who attended Expressive Group Therapy, i.e. a support group, another form of self-expression for those who aren’t comfortable with writing. Women in these studies also saw improvement in mood and physical well-being. Support groups for breast cancer patients can be found at many churches, hospitals, and community centers.

For those who aren’t interested in group therapy or writing, a journal can be filled with drawings, or you can engage in some other artistic form of self-expression. Studies have shown that expressing your experience and emotions through art has the same positive impact on physical and mental health as writing.

The best part is that that your level of talent is of no consequence: these benefits were shown to accrue even if you’re the furthest thing from a Picasso or Hemingway.

What self-expression seems to do is allow you to express you fear, anxiety, anger, or other feelings in a productive manner, thereby giving you more control over these emotions. This serves to lessen stress and results in an improved quality of life for breast cancer patients.

So go for it — grab some paper and a pen or watercolors, or join a support group, or get out there in some other way that suits you.  Strive to not simply survive breast cancer, but to thrive, and live your one wild and precious life to the fullest.

Jean Heflin Kane lives in Devon, Pennsylvania with her husband, four children, and the real star of the family, their fluffy, fun-loving dog Toby. Jean is an attorney who founded and directs a non-profit aimed at supporting sustainability initiatives in K-12 schools. She is actively striving to be a breast cancer "thriver." She blogs at striving2thrive.wordpress.com. She welcomes comments and suggestions on blog topics.

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