Sixty of the 63 people wrote "quite positively," Morgan said. "That blew my mind."
A software program helped the researchers analyze the writing for themes, words and phrases indicating how cancer had transformed the patients' lives. But Morgan said she was most interested in what people had to say, how they felt about their experience with the disease.
"Basically, we were trying to stick to thoughts and feelings rather than the facts," she said. "Writing about facts doesn't get you anywhere."
"A lot of them wrote in the survey, 'I hate thinking about cancer but writing helped me process it and I feel better, it helped me create a script of things I want to say to my family.' They were saying they just couldn't deal and writing helped them deal," said Morgan, a writing clinician and director of Lombardi's Arts & Humanities Program.
Expressive writing has now been incorporated into the hospital's arts and humanities program and is part of general patient orientation, when Morgan makes a presentation and hands out blank journals.
Some trial participants have incorporated the practice into their lives.
"I started writing updates for relatives and close friends, and I still do that to this day," two years after the trial, Irwin said. "They just about always reply."
Sandi Stromberg teaches a class, "Journaling: The Healing Power of Story," for patients and caregivers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
"They say, 'I don't want to just sit here moaning about my cancer or my loved one's cancer," she said. "For cancer patients, the whole story becomes cancer. They forget they led perfectly normal, functioning lives before cancer."
Stromberg uses non-cancer related prompts such as "Write about your first car." Invariably, the patients want to share what they've written, and they bond strongly to each other.
"One time I had a man, I didn't think he
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