What I Learned in Therapy

Started by Leida, June 17, 2015
9 replies for this topic
Leida

Member
558 Posts
Posted on
June 17, 2015
"Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don't go there alone." – Augusten Burroughs

The room was barely big enough for two chairs, a desk and a box of tissues.

Every Tuesday at 10 a.m., I found myself there. Usually, I showed up with a specific issue I needed to talk about. Sometimes, I was just there to be there. Every time, except one, I left feeling better than when I walked in the door.

I’ve been very open about spending an entire year in therapy after my mastectomy. Without a doubt, it was the single best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I don’t know how I could have navigated cancer without it and cannot overstate this:

Therapy saved me.

As a stage 0 DCIS breast cancer patient, I didn’t need chemo and had intense survivor’s guilt. I was angry about changes to my body, lonely, fatigued, overwhelmed and grief-stricken. For the six and a half months from my first suspicious mammogram to my mastectomy, I had no one to talk with who understood. Worse, I thought I was the only one feeling what I was feeling.

Without a touchstone to compare my reactions to, I was afraid I was making too big a deal out of things. In therapy, the first thing I learned was that my emotions were entirely normal for someone who had been diagnosed with cancer. What a relief it was to learn that a therapist who specialized in treating oncology patients found my reactions appropriate and downright typical.

Of course, the new knowledge that my feelings were normal didn’t make them any less painful. I was an emotional mess and, as I wrote in It’s My Cancer and I’ll Cry if I Want To, my therapist’s office was the only place I felt completely safe to express my suffering.

Unlike my family and friends, my therapist had no personal stake in my cancer. She was empathetic, but my illness didn’t shake her world the way it did my loved ones. When I shared my pain, there was no obligation on my part to protect or reassure her. For one hour a week, I wasn’t a wife, mother, daughter or friend with cancer. I was just me and the only one in the room who needed consolation and support.

With complete trust that everything was confidential, I was honest and real in our conversations. There was no criticism or judgment; nothing I said shocked or disturbed my therapist. I remember thinking many times that my habit of incessantly folding a tissue in smaller and smaller triangles (I had to do something with my nervous energy) must have driven her crazy, but she never said a word about it.

That tiny room was a cocoon of safety. Even when I was at my lowest point, furious at loved ones all too willing to move on while I was caught in the throes of cancer, there was no reaction to my nastiness. That’s not to say my therapist always gave me a pass. More than once she called me on things, like my habit of being “nice” rather than honest about what I needed only to end up resentful.

As we dove deep into thornier issues, my therapist told me many times I was exceptionally brave to come back every week to face my demons. For a long time, I had no idea what she was talking about because all I thought I was doing was spending an hour crying and being pathetic.

It turns out being brave is about showing up. I found myself in that room every Tuesday at 10 a.m. and kept going back for a year, even when what I found scared me to death. I talked, I cried and I returned again and again because I was no longer willing to be stuck in the silence of cancer.

In the year after my mastectomy, my head was a very unsafe neighborhood. I’m forever grateful that I didn’t have to walk its streets alone.  

Have you had oncology therapy? Are you considering therapy, but a bit nervous about trusting a perfect stranger with your deepest thoughts? Let’s talk about it in the CURE discussion group. I answer every comment.  
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Debbie Woodbury

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 17, 2015
"Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don't go there alone." – Augusten Burroughs

The room was barely big enough for two chairs, a desk and a box of tissues.

Every Tuesday at 10 a.m., I found myself there. Usually, I showed up with a specific issue I needed to talk about. Sometimes, I was just there to be there. Every time, except one, I left feeling better than when I walked in the door.

I’ve been very open about spending an entire year in therapy after my mastectomy. Without a doubt, it was the single best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I don’t know how I could have navigated cancer without it and cannot overstate this:

Therapy saved me.

As a stage 0 DCIS breast cancer patient, I didn’t need chemo and had intense survivor’s guilt. I was angry about changes to my body, lonely, fatigued, overwhelmed and grief-stricken. For the six and a half months from my first suspicious mammogram to my mastectomy, I had no one to talk with who understood. Worse, I thought I was the only one feeling what I was feeling.

Without a touchstone to compare my reactions to, I was afraid I was making too big a deal out of things. In therapy, the first thing I learned was that my emotions were entirely normal for someone who had been diagnosed with cancer. What a relief it was to learn that a therapist who specialized in treating oncology patients found my reactions appropriate and downright typical.

Of course, the new knowledge that my feelings were normal didn’t make them any less painful. I was an emotional mess and, as I wrote in It’s My Cancer and I’ll Cry if I Want To, my therapist’s office was the only place I felt completely safe to express my suffering.

Unlike my family and friends, my therapist had no personal stake in my cancer. She was empathetic, but my illness didn’t shake her world the way it did my loved ones. When I shared my pain, there was no obligation on my part to protect or reassure her. For one hour a week, I wasn’t a wife, mother, daughter or friend with cancer. I was just me and the only one in the room who needed consolation and support.

With complete trust that everything was confidential, I was honest and real in our conversations. There was no criticism or judgment; nothing I said shocked or disturbed my therapist. I remember thinking many times that my habit of incessantly folding a tissue in smaller and smaller triangles (I had to do something with my nervous energy) must have driven her crazy, but she never said a word about it.

That tiny room was a cocoon of safety. Even when I was at my lowest point, furious at loved ones all too willing to move on while I was caught in the throes of cancer, there was no reaction to my nastiness. That’s not to say my therapist always gave me a pass. More than once she called me on things, like my habit of being “nice” rather than honest about what I needed only to end up resentful.

As we dove deep into thornier issues, my therapist told me many times I was exceptionally brave to come back every week to face my demons. For a long time, I had no idea what she was talking about because all I thought I was doing was spending an hour crying and being pathetic.

It turns out being brave is about showing up. I found myself in that room every Tuesday at 10 a.m. and kept going back for a year, even when what I found scared me to death. I talked, I cried and I returned again and again because I was no longer willing to be stuck in the silence of cancer.

In the year after my mastectomy, my head was a very unsafe neighborhood. I’m forever grateful that I didn’t have to walk its streets alone.  

Have you had oncology therapy? Are you considering therapy, but a bit nervous about trusting a perfect stranger with your deepest thoughts? Let’s talk about it in the CURE discussion group. I answer every comment.  
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Gary

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 25, 2015
Debbie - Thanks for this insight into how therapy saved you. I went through my NHL chemotherapy 5 years ago and saw too many people with trouble coping with their cancer in the treatment rooms. But I don't think many of them got help. Why NOT? (That's another column for you). The worst time for many is after diagnosis and before the first oncologist appointment. I keep telling people that just as there are on-call counselors for trauma, abuse and disaster sufferers, there should be on-call counselors for those who have been blind-sided by the cancer bus. And I'll be one of them. Thanks so much, Gary S. Grubb, MD, MPH, LCSWA
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Debbie Woodbury

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 26, 2015
Thanks so much Gary. Do you know about Cancer Care? It's an organization that provides access to professional oncology social workers who offer telephone, online and face-to-face counseling free of charge. You can find them at www.cancercare.org. Everyone who wants therapy to deal with cancer should be able to find it. Thanks so much for your comment.
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Andrea

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 27, 2015
Thank you for writing this article. I had a lumpectomy February 2014 then did the chemo and radiation for the rest of the year. Started tamoxifen and went for 1st mammogram only to find cancer had thumbed its nose at last year's heroic efforts and I had a left full mastectomy in February 2015. I came out of this last operation and sunk into a deep dark hole. I didn't experience that last year. This year I have been told to expect cancer to come back within 6 months. I panicked and I was a mess until I got help in the form of anti depressants and going to a trauma psychologist (part of my work wellbeing which I hadn't used). I didn't know how I was going to live with uncertainty for the rest of my life, let alone the next six months. I had wise counsel and suggestions from the psychologist who challenged me but also respected my journey. I then had a bone scan at 3 months and all clear, which was a HUGE relief. I didn't realise I needed therapy and someone outside of my immediate environment. I, like you, have strength now in moving forward. "Take one day at a time, get a good night's sleep, and start the next day" - his advice to me - and it's working. I encourage anyone who is spinning and spiralling to find a therapist. It is traumatic what we go through and I never considered that at all last year as I was looked after my the medical teams. This year is mentally challenging and it is another new experience. So much to learn on this cancer trip. 😊
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Debbie Woodbury

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 27, 2015
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Andrea. Sometimes we don't even know what we need until we have the blessing of finding it. Your therapist's advice rings true in so many situations and I'm so glad you're getting the support you need. Thank you again, and I wish you all the best.
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JAB

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 28, 2015
Debbie, You write that your dx was 0DCIS. Why did you then have a mastectomy? Thanks so much for responding! I, too, had breast cancer: invasive DC (very tiny); lumpectomy; radiation; tamoxifen.
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Debbie Woodbury

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
June 30, 2015
JAB: I was thrown by that too. When I was diagnosed, my breast surgeon explained that the DCIS was so dispersed throughout my breast that a lumpectomy would leave my plastic surgeon very little to work with for reconstruction. At my website, WhereWeGoNow.com, I've talked a lot about how hard it was to wrap my head around being told I was "lucky" to have DCIS and yet needing a mastectomy.
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Syl

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
August 18, 2015
Debbie, I had no idea what I'm going through was normal. After a fracture to my L1 in January 2014 n a bone scan August 2014 results were Metastasized Breast cancer *left breast* stage 4 "not curable". It took me a while to understand my prognosis "quality of life" no chemo, no surgery & no radiation. I have no mental support around me, have to wear my "strong" mask around my loved ones. Just recently started a Cancer Support Group through my church but I still felt the need on that one to one basis. Thanks to ur article I realized I need therapy! My faith in God is what keeps me strong but my mind/head is my worst enemy. Thank u so much for sharing ur story. God Bless :)
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Debbie Woodbury

Member
0 Replies
Posted on
August 21, 2015
Syl: I felt like I was saved when I found one-on-one support. It was such a relief to drop the "strong mask" in therapy and concentrate on my needs only. Your feelings are entirely normal and you deserve a place that's just for you. Good luck and God Bless you too. Debbie
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