Do you remember the last handwritten card you received from a friend? Was it special? Did you keep it? Now imagine receiving an encouraging card when you’ve just found out you have breast cancer and are worried about losing your hair and your finger nails. Helping women through this uncertain and frightening time is the mission of the charity that I started called Girls Love Mail. Our goal is to encourage newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with the gift of a handwritten note.

I’m a writer, and I was working on a story comprised entirely of letters when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While undergoing treatment and writing fictional letters, I then began receiving letters. Each day I’d go to the mailbox with such excited anticipation. I received over 200 of cards and letters, many from people I’d never met. Letters were all around me. They were uplifting and healing. So once I finished treatment, I started Girls Love Mail to be sure other breast cancer patients receive this special kind of healing.

The program is very simple. People from all over the country write letters and mail them to Girls Love Mail based in California. We read all of the letters with a big box of tissues, and then we put each in a Girls Love Mail envelope and send bundles to cancer centers across the country where they are handed out. One letter goes to one woman in need.

Though the workings of the program are simple, I’m often asked what to write in a card, what is most encouraging and are there some topics to avoid? Writing a letter to friend who’s ill or needs encouragement takes particular care. So here are a few letter writing tips that have helped me through the years.

What to Say

1. Remember that you don’t have to fix anything. “I don’t know what to say, but I care about you” is a great way to share your feelings.

2. Try to focus on the needs of the recipient. Use “you” rather than “I” to show you are thinking of them. And offer your kindness. “If you need to cry, I’ve got a strong soft shoulder.” Doesn’t everyone needs a good cry sometimes?

3. Offering to help goes a long way toward healing. “I’m going to the store, What can I get for you?” Be specific and don’t wait to be asked. Many women are shy about asking for help.

What to Avoid

1. Phrases like “you look so good” may sound like a nice compliment, but the statement implies that the recipient can’t really be sick. Understand that whatever they look like on the outside may not reflect how they feel.

2. Don’t try cheer someone up by pointing out changes. “At least you can stop working” may be true, but being unable to work can cause depression. Be mindful that change is scary. Instead, try to point out what hasn’t changed. “Your garden always looks so wonderful.”

3. We all want to blame our illness on something, but assigning blame is stressful. Don’t suggest a healthier diet or more exercise. Avoid trying to place blame and focus on what the recipient might enjoy. A simple stroll in the fresh air might be just what someone needs to brighten their day.

For Girls Love Mail, anyone with a story to share or desire to encourage a woman can write a letter that begins with “Dear Friend” or “Dear Sister.” Letter writers can use almost any note card or paper, but the letters must be handwritten. That’s what makes them truly special. And Girls Love Mail is great for group events of all ages. Writing with friends is extra encouraging.

Girls Love Mail has collected over 9,000 letters since August 2011, and the efforts are helping. Meg G received a GLM letter and shared her experience. “As I was sitting getting re-hydrated in the infusion center after only my second of eight cycles of chemotherapy treatments, one of the nurses handed me a letter from a complete stranger that touched my heart. I was scared and alone, but the letter made me feel so much better. It reminded me that I’m surrounded by a wonderful sisterhood of support.”

In the U.S., a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 3 seconds. For Girls Love Mail, that’s 250,000 letters every year. To help get there, we are building a community who write letters regularly and stay healthy. The GLM motto is “Do your breast self exam, and when you hopefully don’t find a lump, write a letter to someone who did.”

In this age of text message and emailing, we’ve forgotten the simple healing power of a handwritten note. Letters are precious gifts we keep to re-read on the dark days. So the next time you’re unwrapping a letter, think about how it makes you feel. Then pick up a pen.