Online Journaling Helps Ease Depression in Women Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

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A small study has found that women diagnosed with breast cancer who wrote online about their experiences with cancer had fewer symptoms of depression and more positive moods.

The study was published online on Aug. 12, 2013 by the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Read the abstract of “Project Connect Online: Randomized Trial of an Internet-Based Program to Chronicle the Cancer Experience and Facilitate Communication.”

The study, called Project Connect Online, randomly assigned 88 women diagnosed with breast cancer to one of two groups:

  • one group, called the website group, attended a 3-hour workshop and created personal websites (46 women)
  • the other group, called the control group, didn’t attend the workshop (42 women); after the researchers collected information on how online writing had helped the women who attended the workshop, the women in the control group were offered a chance to attend the workshop

The women in the study were between 28 and 76 years old and were diagnosed about 5 years before the study started. About 20% of the women in each group had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. None of the women in the study had already created a personal website.

Metastatic breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread to other areas of the body away from the breast, including the liver, bones, and brain.

Before they were assigned to a group, all the women filled out a survey asking about their moods, any depressive symptoms they had, as well as feelings of anger, tension, fatigue, and confusion. They filled out the same surveys 1 month and 6 months after the study started.

In the workshop, the women were shown how they could share information on a personal website, including:

  • writing about their feelings related to cancer
  • providing medical updates
  • letting their family and friends know what would be helpful

The women also took part in a hands-on demonstration on how to create a website and wrote their first journal entry/blog post.

“We worked closely with a website developer so participants had several choices for how their sites looked, but all the sites had the same functions,” said Annette Stanton, professor of psychology and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA who led the study. “It was inspiring to see women of so wide an age range and of such varied computer experience develop their websites in just a few hours.”

The women who created websites said the sites helped them tell the story of their cancer experience and meant they had to repeat less information for family and friends. People who visited the websites said the sites helped them feel emotionally close to the women who created them and allowed them to keep up with the women’s health.

Overall, women who created websites had fewer depressive symptoms, had a more positive moods, and more appreciation for life compared to the women in the control group who didn’t create websites. These benefits were strongest in women who were undergoing treatment for breast cancer and most of these women had metastatic disease.

This study echoes the results of other small studies showing that journaling -- whether online or on paper -- can help ease depression, anxiety, stress, and fear.

People approach writing a journal in many different ways. A journal or blog can be as rough or as complete as you choose. If you think you’d like to start, don’t set any rules. Express yourself in a way that feels comfortable for you. Many women have started using Facebook and Twitter as a place to express their feelings about breast cancer and give their loved ones updates on their health. Others have created a blog on one of the many free sites available, including Blogspot.com. And hundreds of thousands of women use the Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards to express their feelings about breast cancer.

For more information on writing a journal, visit the Breastcancer.org Journaling page in the Complementary and Holistic Medicine section.

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