When Words Heal

“…expressive writing has downstream effects not only for those who have endured very negative experiences, such as trauma but for almost anyone.” DiMenichi et al., 2019.

The farther away in time I get from my diagnosis and surgeries, the less I identify as a cancer patient, and increasingly I can see myself as a cancer survivor. With this change in perspective, I am taking on other roles as my life changes. I am a writer, a singer, even a dancer now…a bona fide artist! I feel like I can make and achieve long-term goals and successes, especially choosing to live a healthy and authentic life.

But sometimes, particularly when I have medical appointments, I am reminded that I did once call myself a cancer patient, and that day may come again. I reassure myself that I can cope with the challenges that may come. I practice labeling to remind myself that I am enough, ground myself in the present, and recuperate my sense of agency.

Expressive labeling

Life is full of change. We can become caught up in the roles we fulfill and live out our days on autopilot, not quite feeling ourselves. We can refocus by labeling how we spend our energy. Together, we have discussed labeling in different forms: identifying our values, expanding and expressing our emotional intelligence, and setting S.M.A.R.T goals. And the practice of expressive writing, another form of labeling, has been validated by a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence.

“In the laboratory, consistent and significant health improvements are found when individuals write or talk about personally upsetting experiences. The effects include both subjective and objective markers of health and well-being.”, Pennebaker et al., 2011.

One of my end-of-the-year traditions is to review the year and set goals and objectives for the new year. I began this practice in 2010 when I started farming in Sonoma. I needed a way to keep track of what worked, what did not work, and what changes to make around the farm in the seasons to come. In ecological restoration, this practice is termed adaptive monitoring. Since then, I have extensively used this annual reflection to help me set goals for the coming year, mark successes, and explore areas for growth.

In the years after my diagnosis, these notes took on a different tone. My farm notes became my healing work. The goals became simplified and short-term. I started experimenting with creative writing and artistic visualization to express my objectives and keep these at the forefront of my mind. I cherish going back to these notes at the end of the year and ticking boxes or transferring old unachieved goals to the new year. When I have lost sight of my goals, I revisit these reflections and recenter myself.

I would like to share some examples from my old notebooks…

Over the years, this practice of notetaking, creative writing, and artistic expression has helped me label and process pain, trauma, and chronic stress that lived in my body-mind by transferring it to paper. These reflections help validate my sense of purpose and recenter my focus when I feel lost.  

Prompt 1: What roles do you take on? Make a list, draw a circle, and make a pie chart; divide the chart and label where you spend your energy with the roles that you fulfill.

Prompt 2: What roles can you change? Where can you adjust? Where do you need to change?  Where is there room for growth? What takes energy? What provides balance? How would you like to redistribute the areas in this pie chart?


DiMenichi B. C., Ceceli A. O., Bhanji J. P., Tricomi E., (2019)Effects of Expressive Writing on Neural Processing During LearningFrontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol. 13, 2019. DOI=10.3389/fnhum.2019.00389   

Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2011). Expressive writing: Connections to physical and mental health.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: