Writing through cancer: using writing as therapy (and a way to help others)

In this guest blog, Sara explains how writing helped her cope with cancer – and provides some tips on how you can get started writing too!


In three months, my book is being launched. In fact, people can actually pre-order it on Amazon now. I keep having a sneaky peak to check it’s still there. It is. There’s a picture of the cover (a photo of my feet in fluffy white socks) with my name in big capital letters. Which is really weird. Weird in so many ways. Had someone told me three years ago that I’d be a published author I would have laughed (very loudly) in their face. You see, I’m not what I would call a ‘writer’. I’m not one of those people who’s lived with an unwritten novel sitting inside them and I’ve never really had any aspirations to write poetry, short stories or even magazine articles. I’ve never studied creative writing and my day job only involves the legal kind of writing. But then something horrible happened to me. I had cancer. I started to write about it. And I haven’t really stopped.

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Guest writer Sara started writing after she was diagnosed with cancer.

I didn’t sit down one day and just write it all out. I jotted things down over the course of treatment: I described my emotions and how I was feeling; I recorded my side effects at length; I wrote long gratitude lists; I wrote about my anger, resentment and fear; I recorded the way in which treatment was given to me; I made lengthy, detailed to-do lists; I ranted about people who upset me with their thoughtlessness; I made lots of exciting life-after-cancer lists; I wrote about my hopes and dreams; and I recorded my day to day observations and general musings about life, death and everything in between. And all this writing made me feel so much better.

Then, towards the end of my treatment before I went back to work, I took all these notes and I set up a website, wrote a book and starting writing articles for cancer charities and organisations. I realised that whilst the writing was helping me, it might also help other people who were going through similar things.

If you’re going through cancer treatment, or you’ve finished treatment and you’re trying to put your life back together, why not consider writing about your experience?

  1. Remember that you are writing for whatever reason that you choose. So, if you don’t want anyone to read it then they don’t have to – you can keep your writing private. Nobody needs to ever read it; you could even ceremoniously destroy it in a defiant move against cancer.
  2. Everyone can write about their experience. You don’t need to be a writer. You just need a pen and paper, or a laptop, or a phone. You don’t need to be perfect at grammar and spelling. Just remember to write what is important to you, write from the heart and be honest.
  3. Use your writing to stay in control. Going to hospital for consultant appointments, oncologist appointments, scans, blood tests, clinical trial appointments, counsellor sessions, and everything else can be so overwhelming. Sometimes it can be helpful to take notes at these appointments and then rewrite the details into a dedicated notebook/computer folder so that everything flows from one appointment to the next and you can keep on top of what is going on, rather than feeling completely out of control.
  4. Try keeping a gratitude journal. Having cancer can feel so unfair and cause all sorts of negative emotions to build up inside you. Sometimes it might help to remember things for which you are grateful. And on the bad days, re-reading this ongoing list might help to lift you out of your slump.
  5. Don’t be afraid you write down your feelings and emotions, your fears and worries. If you write them out, then they’re out of your head and you can let them go. It might even help lift the weight of anxiety off your chest a little.
  6. What to write? If you like the idea of writing about your experience but you don’t know where to start, here are a few prompts to get you going:
  • How did you feel to be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age?
  • How did it feel to tell your parents, siblings, children that you had cancer?
  • How have friends treated you since you told them about your diagnosis?
  • If you’ve lost your hair, how did you feel about it?

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    Sara, during treatment.

  • What has having cancer made you realise, that perhaps you didn’t before?
  • Have any positive things come out of having cancer?
  • How have the side effects affected you?

7. Use your writing to express your feelings towards others. Anyone going through cancer knows that unfortunately not all your friends step up and rally around. This is incredibly hurtful and can knock your confidence to an even lower level. This is not what you need when you have bigger things to worry about. It can eat away at the back of your mind with thoughts like, “Why hasn’t she got in touch?” “Why am I not invited out with my friends anymore?” “What’s wrong with me?” It might help to write a letter to these friends telling them how you feel and why you’re upset with them. Don’t send the letter, just burn it or rip it to shreds and move on.

8. Don’t forget to write about the good as well as the bad. For example, it’s nice to write about all the lovely things that people do for you (like bringing you food or driving you to appointments) and it’s nice to read these back to remember how important you are to these people.

9. Consider whether you’d like to share your writing with others. Maybe you’d like to set up a blog (which is fairly straightforward using one of the DIY blog platforms like WordPress) or a Facebook page. With both these types of blogs you can share your writing with either just your friends and family, or open it up to anyone. If you don’t want to set up something yourself, get in touch with one of the cancer charities or cancer organisations about sharing your writing as a guest blog on their website (I’m always happy to post guest blogs about breast cancer for my website, tickingoffbreastcancer.com and, of course, you can always get in touch with Shine!).

10. Don’t be shy about sharing your writing with others. It can be a bit daunting to start with, but at the end of the day people going through cancer want to read about the experiences of others who’ve been through the same thing. They’re looking for reassurance, support, honesty and advice so if you can provide these, they’ll want to read what you write. And remember these words of encouragement from me:

You have something to say, so you should say it.

Even if it just helps one person, you are making a difference.

You have a voice, use it.

People will appreciate the advice of someone who has been through it.


Sara is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, a book about juggling a busy life with treatment for primary breast cancer. This book follows the physical and emotional impact of breast cancer on Sara’s life, and provides practical help by way of checklists at the end of each chapter. The book is out 26 September 2019 but you can pre-order the book now from Hashtag Press, Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles. Sara is also the founder of www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, a website dedicated to supporting those who don’t know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the breast cancer resources online and those just looking for a comfortable, safe, calm place to turn for help. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Can you help us to shape the future of cancer support?

Way, way back in 2011, Shine Cancer Support was tiny. We had two support groups (one in Dorset and one in London) and we weren’t yet registered as a charity.  We had no staff, but we felt like there was a lot of need for support for younger adults with cancer. Unfortunately, try as we might, we couldn’t find it – and we also couldn’t find any research on the needs of younger adults with cancer in the UK. To help us make the case for change, we ran an online survey as part of our Small c Project 2012. This was the first research carried out into the needs of adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The results helped us to shape our work and create workshops, retreats and conferences that covered topics that were of importance to our community: fertility, working after cancer, coping with anxiety, and more.

Small c Project - Image 4It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since we first ran that survey! We’re now a small team of five people (all of whom have had cancer), and we’re a registered charity. We’ve been able to grow and expand across the UK and now have 14 Shine Networks. But we know there’s more to do, so we’ve decided to run the Small c Survey (version 2019!) again so that we’re up to date with the needs and issues that everyone in our community is facing. We would love to hear from you! If you can spare a few minutes, please do visit the survey and let us know your thoughts on how cancer has affected you.

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In 2012, 53% of respondents told us that they could no longer work in the same way as they had done before their diagnosis.

Why is this important? Well, when we did our survey in 2012, 53% of respondents told us that they were unable to work in the same way as they had done before their diagnosis. Fifty-three percent! Though we knew from our own experiences how tough returning to work can be, seeing the cold hard numbers in front of us made us determined to support younger adults with cancer to return to work – whether that was a new job, the same job in a new way, or something completely different. We’ve worked with a number of experts to develop workshops on working after cancer, and we’ve also included sessions on work at many of our Great Escape retreats and Shine Connect conferences. We’ve also been able to make the case to other charities and healthcare bodies that returning to work matters – and that younger people in particular need support because they’re facing cancer at a critical time in their careers.

Shine has always been a community-led organisation and we couldn’t do what we do without the insight we get from the younger adults with cancer that contact us. If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s and have experienced a cancer diagnosis, please help us out – the survey is here.

Oh! And as a sweetener, you could win one of three £25 Amazon gift cards. It *is* only 141 days until Christmas!