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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