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Breast Cancer Patients Benefit from Expressive Writing

Update Date: Aug 02, 2014 09:16 AM EDT

Writing can be a very therapeutic task. In a new study, researchers from the University of Houston (UH) examined the effects of expressive writing on breast cancer survivors. The team headed by Qian Lu, an assistant professor and director of the Culture and Health Research Center at the University, found that when patients wrote down their fears, emotions and benefits of getting a diagnosis, their health outcomes improved.

"The key to developing an expressive writing intervention is the writing instruction. Otherwise, writing is just like a journal recording facts and events. Writing a journal can be therapeutic, but oftentimes we don't get the empirical evidence to determine whether it's effective or not," Lu said according to Medical Xpress. "In my research study, I found long-term physical and psychological health benefits when research participants wrote about their deepest fears and the benefits of a breast cancer diagnosis."

For this study, Lu and her colleagues focused on Asian-American breast cancer survivors. She noted that some of the challenges Asian people deal with as a byproduct of culture are feeling stigmatized and shameful. Asian people also tend to suppress their emotions. The team recruited participants to fill out a standardized health assessment. They were instructed to write for 20 minutes each week for three weeks straight. The participants received three sealed envelopes that directed them on what to write. The team also sent out questionnaires assessing the participants' health outcomes at three and six months after the writing experiment. A six-month follow-up involved phone interviews.

"Cancer patients, like war veterans in Iraq, can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. Many times when cancer patients get diagnosed, they face lots of emotional trauma. There's a sense of loss, depression, anxiety about going into treatment and how they are going to face the future. They have a lot of emotional events going on in their life," Lu said. "The findings from the study suggest participants perceived the writing task to be easy, revealed their emotions, and disclosed their experiences in writing that they had not previously told others. Participants reported that they wrote down whatever they thought and felt and perceived the intervention to be appropriate and valuable."

The researchers concluded that doctors could start encouraging breast cancer patients to write about their feelings. The study, "A Pilot Study of Expressive Writing Intervention Among Chinese-Speaking Breast Cancer Survivors," was published in Health Psychology.

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