Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is a surreal experience. Here are my top tips for getting through it.
When it happened to me, I felt an onslaught of disbelief, shock, fear, worry and dread. Feeling all those emotions, instead of denying them, helped me get past that stage and arrive at a new sensation — peace. I still have moments of panic when I wonder if I’m going to abandon my child to a life without a mom, and my husband to widowhood. But mostly, I have a sense of peace that eclipses anything I experienced pre-cancer.
Keep a recovery journal
Shortly after my diagnosis, I started a new journal. Not a cancer journal, but a recovery journal. In mine, I recorded my thoughts, kept a lock of my hair, remembered my dreams and thought through my prayers. I made line drawings of medical interactions, good ones and not-so-good ones. Once, I drew a crowd of nurses huddled around a computer while I desperately waited – and waited – for a bottle of water that never arrived. In my journal, I glued down a napkin from the restaurant I had to leave because the smell made me nauseous. I record small kindnesses and outrageous cruelties. It’s my story, a tangible symbol of my journey, and keeping it helps.
Focus on now
Cancer might take my life. I get it. But I don’t think I’m going to die today. So, as the poets say, carpe diem (seize the day). In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”
This morning I watched a neighbor’s cat pad across my patio, its movements the definition of grace. A gecko climbed the side of our house, pausing to do little pushups in a sunny spot. These fleeting moments arrest my attention now in ways they didn’t before.
An ironic gift of cancer is that the future can be too painful to contemplate, so focusing on the present becomes easier. Right now, this moment, I choose to pay attention. And in that habit, I find joy.
Take a nap
Fighting for my life was exhausting. Now, although I am two years past active treatment, sometimes it still tires me. Triple Negative Breast Cancer wants to come back, and if it does, my doctors warned that it most likely will be fatal. So, if the burden of that cloud becomes too heavy to bear, or if I wake up feeling “chemo tired,” I do the sensible thing. I take a nap. And then I feel better.
When cancer came into my life, I lost a few friends. Some were so uncomfortable that they literally backed away when our paths crossed. A few people I thought would be helpful didn’t help at all.
For my survival, I had to put those hurts aside, to focus on new connections, on the incredible outpouring of support from unlikely places, and on my own resolve to pay that support forward. Connecting is spiritual. It lifts me up, and whether or not I survive this disease, I know that new, deeper connections will remain a blessing.
Ask for help
When I got my diagnosis, my friend Rebecca wanted to organize a meal delivery service. She was going to recruit friends and strangers to bring dinners to our home, but I was uncomfortable with the idea and declined her offer.
In retrospect, I wish I had accepted. My husband was overwhelmed with managing our family business, caring for our child, and overseeing my care. Since we lived in a rural area and had to travel a long way for my treatment, his work load was tremendous. I hope I don’t ever get a cancer diagnosis again, but if I do, I’ll accept whatever help is offered. I hope you will, too.
I lean on my faith. I know God wants what is good for me and for the world, and I accept without reservation the divine plan for my life. I know that God is always with me, there in the chemo room, in the hearts and brains of people who care for patients, and in every aspect of my winding road, no matter what. God is there, too, with my husband and child, and I rest in the knowledge that they will be okay. My belief gives me peace, and I pray that faith, in whatever form it takes for you, helps you get through your experience and opens your heart.
Bad things that happen to us, like cancer, don’t make sense. But even in our trials, we can find nuggets of peace and joy. My wish for you is that your cancer journey shows you new perspectives and happy moments, that these tips I learned from my experience can help you with yours.
Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.