After a cancer diagnosis, you need to put your feelings first before anyone else's.
Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
There are four words that seem like they should be easy to abide by: put your feelings first. Oh, how I wish it was that easy for me after my cancer diagnosis. I don’t know why, but I struggled immensely with my feelings during my initial diagnosis and all throughout the first couple years of my cancer journey. I felt like I had to put on a good face for everyone else around me. I needed to make sure that they were handling my diagnosis OK. There are the words right there. I am so worried about how others are going to handle MY diagnosis.
I am not happy it was me being diagnosed with cancer, but it was my diagnosis, in my body, so my feelings should have come first. It was almost an impossible task for me. Right after I found out the news, I told everyone close to me. I kept a smile on my face, said the typical fighting words that I thought would keep everyone else calm: “Don’t worry, I’m a fighter.” “I can totally handle this.” “I’m going to be just fine.”
As I spoke each of those words in each of those sentences, I had a big cheery smile on my face, but inside, I was drowning in fear. I was so overwhelmed, but I had no idea how to convey my fears to the people that loved me. So, I simply hid behind my fears of what they were feeling instead. This approach got me nowhere except headed on to a slow downward spiral towards my own emotional collapse a few years later. I spent so much time worrying about everyone else and what they were thinking and feeling that I completely forgot about me – the one going through the cancer. I never experienced what I was supposed to feel – anger, sadness, fear, etc. I didn’t get a chance to showcase those emotions to the outside world and explain to them what I was going through after hearing the words, “You have cancer.”
It wasn’t until a couple years down the road, when I hit my rock bottom, that I realized this was a huge mistake. It took some therapy sessions to realize what I had done to myself. I forgot to worry about me and my needs. I forgot that these friends and family members of mine were people who loved and cared about me. They were there for me and the ones to whom I should express my feelings. They never told me they didn’t want to hear my worries or fears at all. They never gave any inkling that they only wanted to hear my positive rhetoric. I just made that one big assumption.
So, what can you do to avoid the mistakes I made? Here are some things I wish I would have done during my conversations after my diagnosis:
1. Open up to yourself, by yourself first. Give yourself a chance to be with your emotions before you make any judgements. Just allow yourself to sit with your fears, your anger, your worries, etc. Get to know those feelings and understand their effects on you.
2. When talking to family or friends, it’s OK to give them a little heads up that you know they are worried and scared, too. Have an open conversation about how you know you may not always be cheery and happy and hope that you can share some of your fears and concerns with them without having to sugar coat them at that moment.
3. Talk to a neutral person, like a therapist, nurse, doctor, social worker, etc. Sometimes we need to talk to people who are not our friends, family or even ourselves. It helps to talk to someone who doesn’t necessarily know us, with whom an open conversation can be had with no judgement.
4. Take all the time you need to work through your emotions and hear those of others. This is your cancer diagnosis, your journey, your body and your life. Do what is best for you.