My pre-cancer self knew nothing of the disease. I stumbled through the four and a half months it took to get a diagnosis like a kindergartener in a graduate course.
At six and a half months in, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. By then, my bright red, hip-to-hip scar, missing nipple and asymmetrical breasts gave me a pretty good handle on cancer’s physical effects.
Getting my head around the emotional consequences was infinitely harder.
Looking back, it’s not like I didn’t feel anything. I was miserable, fatigued, lonely, stressed, angry and overwhelmed. But, unlike physical scars, the severity of those wounds wasn’t obvious when I looked in the mirror.
I had no idea then that recuperating from the emotional devastation of cancer was going to be even harder than recuperating from the physical damage.
In fact, people I trusted told me the exact opposite. As soon as I got home from the hospital, friends and family expressed relief that “the worst is over” and returned to their regularly scheduled lives. A cancer survivor I knew and one of my doctors assured me that cancer would take a year of my life and then “it would be over.”
On the one-year anniversary of that first frightening mammogram, I was nowhere near over cancer and hit a new emotional low. Luckily, I was seeing an oncology therapist. She pointed out the futility of trying to conform to a set end date and empowered me to believe in my right to experience cancer in my own way, at my own pace.
With her help, I learned how to cope with the pressure to be over the trauma of cancer:
1. Focus on Support: When we’re sick, we go to a doctor. It shouldn’t be any different when we’re emotionally traumatized. I had no clue how to get out from under my misery, fatigue, loneliness and anger when I started seeing my therapist. Working with her helped me slowly face and dissect the pain behind my emotions and get to a better place.
2. Focus on Healing: As a five-year survivor, I can honestly say I’m not over cancer and probably never will be. I have, however, healed to a great extent and am much less emotionally distraught than I was during my dark days.
3. Focus on Connecting: Talking with other patients and survivors let me know my emotional struggles were normal and I wasn’t alone. It may be a club no one wants to join but, once you’re in, belonging connects you to others who are uniquely qualified to provide understanding and validation.
A pivotal moment of healing came a few months after my surgery when my husband and I were invited to dinner by friends. I balked because I wasn’t over cancer and was trying to hide it by telling people I was fine. I was exhausted and sick of lying, but afraid to let others in on how hard cancer hit me emotionally.
When our friends asked how I was doing, I answered honestly and was shocked at the relief I felt. Better yet, the trust I put in them was rewarded with empathy and compassion and I was able to go on with the evening feeling heard.
Dealing with the pressure to be over any trauma isn’t easy, and it’s not something I could have ever done alone. It takes work, time, and a great deal of support.
Trauma takes a heavy emotional toll and:
You have the right to experience your feelings at your own pace.
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I was raised to be a quiet, polite, good girl. Of course, nurture alone didn’t form me. As an introvert, it’s entirely my nature to hang back to get the lay of the land and advance slowly. Add to that the fact that I’m big sister to eight brothers and sisters, a wife and mother of two and you get a lifetime of putting others first.
Back when I was a practicing attorney, one of my lawyer friends told me I was the most assertive person she’d ever met. I was shocked, but maybe she was right. When push comes to shove I know how to shove back and my legal career did teach me to curse like a sailor. But, that persona was cultivated to get the job done. It’s not my default.
It never really hit me how hard I found it to say “Yes” to what I wanted until I got breast cancer. Once I became mindful of letting “Yes” into my life, I launched a blog, wrote two books for cancer survivors, got passionate about volunteering and picked up speaking engagements.
Then, the unthinkable happened. I got old enough to get a glimpse of the empty nest.
Sending both of our children to college wasn’t exactly like getting a pink slip. It was more like the premonition that haunts you immediately before getting the ax. But the good news is that the universe is merciful and I was being eased into obsolescence as a full-time nurturer.
With time to think I realized I had just scratched the surface of saying “Yes.” I believed Joseph Campbell when he said, “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” But, how do you know what your big adventure is if you don’t ask the bigger question, “What do I want?”
Once I dared to ask the question a lot happened. First, asking the question interrupts the involuntary impulse to automatically consider someone else’s wishes. (Him: “What do you want for dinner? Me: I don’t know, what do you want?) Second, asking the question forces me to actually come up with an answer. (Me: “What do I want for dinner?Hmm, I need a minute to think about it.”)
The beauty of daring to ask what I want is that I get to decide how to act on the answer. Self-awareness brings a choice between standing up for what I want and letting it go. Whatever I decide, I get to create self-satisfaction and luminous generosity, untainted by the resentment of giving in again and again.