There are many ways to cultivate your own personal spirituality: through yoga, meditation, prayer, and/or journaling (to name a few). In today’s blog, Dana* (a Firefly Guide) shares how her practice of journaling helped her connect and develop her spiritual core, using it to heal from the trauma of her breast cancer experience.
Over 73,000 Words
During the year following my breast cancer diagnosis (Stage 2B, Grade 3), I kept a journal that stretched to over 73,000 words. That’s as long or longer than the books I’ve published. I don’t usually journal, but a close friend, the buddy who helped me pick out a wig while I still had my hair, said, “You have to write about this. You need a place to dump what you’re experiencing.”
My first thought was absolutely not—I’d signed a couple of book contracts (writing is just what I do) the week before I discovered the cancer and was worried enough about fulfilling those obligations while going through nine months of treatment. But my friend knew me better than I knew myself. I named the document file “Cancer Journey” and within days, it was my create-while-you-go travel guide and companion.
174 entries, just about every other day. I titled them all, thinking of the themes I needed to process. Friends. Feelings. Getting the Show on the Road. Expanders. Chemo. Friends Indeed. One Step Forward, Three Steps Back. The journal ended up serving so many purposes.
It reminded me of who I wanted to be. I already knew that I have a high need for control—planning vacations, planning projects, planning just about anything. But so many aspects of cancer treatment would be outside of my control. I journaled about what I had to let go of as well as the things I committed to controlling: My attitude, following medical advice, pacing myself, letting go of whether all the garden weeds were pulled…
It let me frame the journey. I had this image I couldn’t shake of being pushed onto a train I didn’t want to board, heading for destinations that no one wanted to visit. If I wasn’t careful, the image quickly morphed into a boxcar filled with gaunt prisoners, which was not helpful! In my journal I reimagined it as a nice passenger train, with people trying to make my unwanted journey as comfortable as possible. Somehow, that helped with all the unknowns of each step of treatment.
It captured my feelings. I wanted to choose, as much as I could, where I threw my very justified hissy fits! Processing in writing helped me deal with why I cried as I tossed my workout clothes into the washer the day before surgery, or when the people who love me best were so distraught at what was happening to me that they couldn’t give the support I needed, or even when I successfully handled a complex facilitation contract and couldn’t really high-five anyone about it. Fears, anger, triumphs, questions for my doctors all ended up in the journal.
It helped keep my theology straight. Having written on prayer and spirituality, thoughts of, “You’d better practice what you preached!” popped up all too often. One of the most grounding concepts for me were the characteristics of “Hearty” people. To me these were much more helpful than the concepts surrounding “grit” or “battling” cancer since so many things are outside of a cancer survivor’s control. I inventoried my success with the four characteristics of heartiness:
- I knew that the cancer wasn’t because of anything I’d done. Life happens to all of us. I wasn’t being punished
- I stayed connected with close friends and family, even when I had to dig up the energy to do so. As an Introvert, it would have been so easy to hole up and read fantasy novels, but relationships, and work commitments I wanted to keep, kept me going.
- I paid attention to my physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs. All are key to surviving cancer. I prioritized for example staying as fit as possible, keeping the journal for my spiritual and emotional walk, and learning what I could about the treatments I was undergoing. I journaled to stay clear on when I needed to be selfish to get through treatment.
- I embraced the choices I was still able to make, whether it was attitude or rinsing my mouth with saltwater during chemo or taking a moment to really watch the sun rise and claim gratitude.
It captured the facts. I have a record of what did and didn’t taste good during chemo, of when and how I was able to exercise, of conversations with nurses and doctors and physical therapists and friends and family. Two nurses told me, “Never minimize your own journey just because someone else experienced even harder things.” Yes, I hear stories all the time of women who face tougher journeys, but every cancer journey is tough in its own way.
I’ve served as a Guide for three Firefly Sisters now, and my journal has proved infinitely useful in so many ways. I’m able to convey what I actually experienced, from how much I slept (or didn’t!) after chemo to how many days of stretching it took to get my arms over my head before radiation began. I know how I made my surgical decisions. I recall when I panicked and what calmed me down. I can relay what helped me fall asleep at night as a spark for them to brainstorm what might work. And as I reread the entries, I sense over and over so many things, big and little, that brought comfort and hope on the cancer journey. Journaling isn’t for everyone but it can help you focus on the ongoing circle of women who have taken these paths before and remained full of hope and life and purpose.
A tremendous thank you to Dana*, Guest Blogger and Firefly Guide, for sharing her experience with us. If you feel that writing or journaling about your breast cancer experience would help your spiritual well-being, consider taking a class locally at:
- Pathways Minneapolis offers several free journaling and writing classes specific to those with an illnesses, those desiring healing, body-centric or mind-centric, and more.
- People Incorporated in St. Paul has an Artability program that provides free art workshops, including creative journaling and painting poems, to the general public to promote mental health in the community.
- The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis offers many writing and journaling classes, such as Writing for Transformation and Writing Your Memoir, with varying fees.
- Open Book in Minneapolis offers events and quiet space to write and find inspiration.
- White Bear Center for the Arts offers fee-based journaling and writing roundtable classes.
There are several online websites that can help as well:
- SkillShare offers several free online journaling tutorials and classes, from poetry to bullet journaling.
- Center for Journal Therapy has many tools, tips, and methods for you to explore journaling.
- International Association for Journal Writing offers many fee-based courses to get you started journaling.