Health Magazine

Writing and Cancer: An Unlikely Marriage

Posted on the 06 February 2014 by Jean Campbell

David Tabatsky, Author of Write for Life: Communicating Your Way Through Cancer and  Co-author, Chicken Soup for the Soul’s The Cancer Book: 101 Stores of Courage, Support and Love shares his thoughts and experiences on the importance of writing for those of us who have, or have had, a cancer diagnosis.

“Why me?”

Any of us might scream those words out into the universe when trauma hits and we feel helpless.

“Me? It can’t be me! I’m not done living yet!”

And so it is, every 23 seconds, as someone else in America is diagnosed with cancer. In an instant, fear and uncertainty take over. Everything comfortable and familiar suddenly feels out of control.

How do we cope, beyond the guidance of our medical treatment? What about the fear that grabs our soul and makes the world seem like it’s living without us? Can we still connect with our loved ones as we struggle to survive?

Yes we can. When I coauthored Chicken Soup for the Soul’s The Cancer Book in 2009, each of the 101 contributors I worked with demonstrated how healing is possible through writing. Everyone used the power of personal storytelling to cope positively with his or her cancer experience. This taught me a great deal about the process and the potential of writing to heal and inspire others.

I see it happening again each time I lead a writing workshop in cancer centers around the country, where patients, caregivers, survivors and medical staff come together to share a common experience. The workshops challenge participants to reconsider how we communicate by using writing to share our most vulnerable thoughts and feelings. As they explore impossibly tough places they may temporarily hit bottom, but ultimately, they come together in an atmosphere of sharing and support. Writing can do that! It provides the most direct path to your soul and its voice, exposing your self and your deepest will to live.

For some people, writing rivals prayer, while for others it grants permission to express pain and offer a release from that troubling space. Staying connected to your true self through expressive writing keeps you living in three tenses at once: the past, the present, and the future. It offers the chance to reflect everything you’re dealing with: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I have seen patients find ways to communicate more effectively with their family, friends and doctors. I have seen caregivers relieve their stress and find new tools to express their feelings in times of great vulnerability. I have seen nurses inspire an entire room by reading aloud how they too are coping with challenges.

All of the scared and brave people I teach know that their feelings, thoughts and stories are to be cherished––by them, their loved ones and the human community. They are writing for their lives and saying, “I am here. I am alive. I write. Therefore I am.”

And so from a place of great discomfort and unease, writing can transport each of us to a new comfort zone and a feeling of being “at home” in the universe. It may remain private to escort our own healing or we may choose to share it with others. Either way, the power of self-expression is undeniable. It’s a fundamental human need, to affirm our existence and connect with the universe.

That’s why Write for Life exists, as a place to experiment and play, in spite of the challenges you are facing. Writing may push you out of your comfort zone but it can also help you feel bigger and better. That joy might even spread to those around you. What a gift you could have in store for them!


David is the author of Write for Life: Communicating Your Way Through Cancer, an interactive workbook for patients, caregivers, and survivors as well as for doctors, nurses and medical support staff. He teaches writing workshops at cancer centers throughout the United States, including The MD Anderson Center in Houston, the Lombardi Center in Washington, D.C., Duke Cancer Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard University and the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. For more information, please visit where you can also contact David.


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