I am struck by the similarity between anxieties precipitated by the current COVID-19 crisis and facing cancer. In each, there’s a feeling of not being in control and an uncertainty about the future. These emotions often linger and can be difficult to manage.
During my tenure as a medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington, I noticed that patients would often avoid discussing issues about uncertainty. Perhaps, they didn’t want to upset themselves and loved ones. I learned that asking what they understood about their diagnosis, prognosis, treatment plan and the impact of illness on their lives appeared to be relief, as if the elephant in the room was exposed. Some patients asked if they could read their answers. These conversations made me wonder what it would be like if they wrote their own stories of illness.
So, with permission from the medical director, I posted a notice offering a Writing is Good Medicine® workshop. Most participants offered a disclaimer that they were not very good writers. I assured them that they were not being graded and went on to explain the rules: forget grammar and punctuation; do not erase or cross out; and write the first thought that comes to mind and follow it. I went on to say that writing about illness was not a neat narrative and the mind can drift from past to present, fantasy to reality and place to place. I provided an opening line. After completing each exercise there was an opportunity to share one’s writing, which often led to frank discussions about hopes and fears.
In 2007, I was invited to present a seminar at The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine, a conference hosted by the University of Iowa College of Medicine. In my presentation I talked about the Writing is Good Medicine® program building on the pioneering research of James Pennebaker that showed the health benefits of expressive writing. Pennebaker’s studies confirmed that placing pen to paper and exploring the illness experience can reduce anxiety and depression and reduce blood pressure. Writing lends perspective, which can lead to a better understanding of forces that can affect one’s body and mind.
It seems to me that if writing can help one cope with the emotional stress of being a cancer patient, why not consider writing about life in the time of COVID-19. This exercise may benefit one’s mental health and well-being. So, here’s an opening line.
“When I get up in the morning, I think about…”
Remember to follow the rules of Writing is Good Medicine® and write whatever comes to mind; forget grammar and punctuation; and do not erase or cross out. You may be surprised what you discover. Share your writing with loved ones. I bet you’ll find that you’re not alone.