The cartoon from the September 30, 2013, issue of The New Yorker showed a man lying on a couch in a therapist’s office. The caption read: “I did seize the day. But then it seized me right back and used some kind of jujitsu move to flip me on my [rear end].”
That summed up how Mari V. felt. Days before, her husband had been diagnosed with rectal cancer during a routine colonoscopy. He began treatment September 30. She says, “I blinked and my world had turned upside down.”
Seizing the day seemed like too much to handle. She needed to take life one step at a time. “Like rock climbing,” she says, “I had to look for the next foothold.”
“I tried to concentrate on the positives,” she continues. “The cancer hadn’t spread. We were privileged to have good insurance. We were lucky to live close to excellent care.”
At the same time, it was difficult to ignore the unknowns. How would her husband’s tumor respond to oral chemotherapy and radiation treatment? How would he tolerate the side effects?
A Collection of Mementos and “Beautiful Things”
“I’ve never kept a diary,” Mari says. But, during junior high, she received a blank book as a gift. She used it to collect small mementos: comics, quotes from books she read, newspaper clippings. “Things that spoke to me.” Since then, she’s filled three more books.
The idea of chronicling her family’s cancer journey in that same style intrigued her. So began her “journaling” project, with the September 30 New Yorker cartoon.
In a bright green binder, Mari has since been compiling comics, song lyrics, cards, art projects, quotes, newspaper articles, movie tickets and yes, writings. She doesn’t have entries for every day, nor does she document every aspect of her husband’s illness and treatment. But, when the mood strikes, she writes: sometimes in English, sometimes in her native Spanish.
She calls her journal a collection of “pop psychology, food for thought, comfort and beautiful things. It helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me connect to something outside myself. It cheers me up. It keeps me sane.”
Taking a Unique, Personal Approach
For many patients with cancer, coping with their emotions can be as challenging as coping with their physical health. Journaling can provide an avenue to examine and express their thoughts and fears, release anger without lashing out, organize questions for their care team, clarify goals, chart a path forward or maybe just provide a distraction on a particularly difficult day.
It can also calm the mind and reduce stress. In fact, studies indicate journaling (also called “expressive writing”) can alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety and panic, as well as strengthen the immune system. All valuable benefits for both patient and caregiver.
Every person’s approach to journaling is different. Some keep a daily log – a list of events. Some express their feelings through drawings or doodles. Some use books or other sources to provide journal topic ideas such as “I am worried about …” or “My doctor made me feel …” Everybody is different. The key is to discover the type of expression that works best for you.
Mari finds inspiration for her journal in many places: nature, her love of New Orleans, fine and performing arts and from the wisdom and strength of others living with cancer. Even from the comics.
To Find a Group in Your Area
To find out if there’s a journaling group in your area, talk to your care team or the local American Cancer Society patient navigator.