Creative healing: does writing improve health outcomes in cancer patients?

A team of researchers at the University of Houston (TX,USA) have published results from a study titled, ‘A Pilot Study of Expressive Writing Intervention Among Chinese-Speaking Breast Cancer Survivors’, in which they report that writing down fears, emotions and the benefits of a cancer diagnosis may improve health outcomes for Asian-American breast cancer survivors.

Discussing the study, lead author Qian Lu (University of Houston) commented: “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. 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.”

Lu continued: “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 also commented that she has found little attention is paid to Asian-American breast cancer survivor’s psychological needs. Lu highlights that previous studies largely focused on non-Hispanic white samples, and she found a need to research this understudied population. Some of the challenges she noted with this population were feeling stigmatized, shame associated with cancer, cultural beliefs of bearing the burden alone to avoid disrupting harmony, suppressing emotions, and a lack of trained mental health professionals with cultural and linguistic competency.

“We thought of a very interesting way to help this problem. It’s actually fairly basic. It’s to express emotions using writing,” explained Lu. “What’s so interesting is that it has been proven as a scientific paradigm.”

Lu commented that previous research has found that writing about emotionally difficult events for just 20–30 minutes at a time over three or four days increased immune function. The release offered by writing had a direct impact on the body’s capacity to withstand stress and fight off infection and disease.

“I based my study for Chinese-speaking breast cancer survivors on Pennebaker’s research paradigm, and we have conducted a series of studies to modify the paradigm for Asian-Americans,” noted Lu.

In the study, the team asked participants to complete a standardized health assessment and then to write 20 minutes each week for three weeks. Three sealed envelopes were mailed simultaneously to the participants with each envelope containing different writing instructions for the corresponding week.

Questionnaires assessing health outcomes were mailed to participants at three and six months after the completion of the writing assignments. Semi-structured phone interviews were conducted after the 6-month follow-up.

Discussing the findings, Lu commented that they “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.”

Lu further added that health outcomes associated with the expressive writing intervention include a reduction in fatigue, intrusive thoughts and reducing post-traumatic stress after three and six months.

The research study contributes to the growing literature of expressive writing by illustrating the feasibility and potential benefits among Chinese-speaking breast cancer survivors and suggests that writing is associated with health benefits at long-term follow-ups.

University of Houston press release