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How Coping With Cancer Teaches Us to Cope With Trauma

Once you have experienced cancer, you can take those learnings and help others when trauma hits in their lives.
PUBLISHED May 25, 2018
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
I think we can all agree that when you or a loved one goes through cancer, you have to learn as you go. There are no rule books, no direction as to how to handle your emotions and no way to know how to make the decisions that change everything. For me, my diagnosis of breast cancer was the most traumatic thing to happen in my life. Over the years, I have been working on processing the emotions that still tag along long after my diagnosis and treatment have moved well into the past tense of my life. I have found that as I navigate the post-treatment world, I can use what I have learned in other instances. It's taken a lot of training, if you will (therapy, actually) to learn to deal with how I feel, understand how other's feel and navigate those emotional waters that I flow through daily. So, when new challenges are presented, I find that I can handle them pretty well.

So, what happens when the trauma happens to someone else? How do you deal with it? And more importantly, how do you help them? I'll put it in prospective. A couple weeks ago, family members of mine had significant damage happen to their home. It was unexpected and very traumatic. The same emotions they felt, I felt. It was quite overwhelming for them and even though the home is not mine, I felt that pain and fear as well. What was initially odd to me was how much it felt similar to hearing the words spoken to me all those years ago that I had cancer. It may seem as if I am comparing apples and oranges, but am I really?

When I learned of the damage to the house (no one was seriously injured, and everyone is completely fine) the feeling and mindset I immediately felt was panic, of course. However, it also had that similar feeling when I found my lump, followed by the tests, followed by no words of benign, followed by those fateful diagnosis words. What was odd to me looking back is the fact that the feelings and emotions I felt in hearing the family news were so similar to the feelings when I was diagnosed. I was trying to process the unexpected house news as well as my utter confusion as to why I was relating this back to cancer when it really had nothing to do with the house. And then it hit me - it's the trauma aspect of the situation.

The difference this time around is I was the bystander in the situation – the caregiver, if you will. I was the support team, the one that was standing by watching this hardship happen to someone else. I saw in the emotions of my family – those same emotions that I felt when I heard that I had cancer happening to me. Not only could I relate to my family going through the trauma of their house situation, but I think I finally understood a bit better what my caregivers felt when they heard that I had cancer. I felt helpless and useless. What could I say to these people that would make it better? What could I possible do? And then I felt like I had to put my emotions on hold. This wasn't my house. This wasn't a trauma happening directly to me. It was a very cold and scary place to feel so helpless to these people.

However, my thoughts were somewhat incorrect. Of course I could help. I'd been in their shoes. Experienced in unexpected trauma? Check. Understanding of emotions that trauma brings with it? Check. As I came out of my shock at the situation, I knew I could help them. I waited for the right time and then slowly worked in some general understanding of their feelings, fears and shock. I explained that although I have never gone through the shock of a home being damaged and unlivable, I did understand the emotional wave of fears and questions that roll through your mind over and over in these kind of moments. I offered some advice on coping mechanisms that had worked for me and some advice on those coping tools I learned long after my diagnosis. See, the thing with trauma is it has a way of creeping up on you long after the initial experience has come and gone. This is something I didn't know at the time and wished someone would have shared with me.

My biggest suggestion to anyone going through a trauma is mourn what you have lost, whether it is physical, emotional, the person you once were, the dreams you had, etc. Whatever you lost in the trauma, mourn it. I never did. I never mourned the old me before I was diagnosed. I never mourned the lost dreams I had. I never mourned my old body. I pretended as if everything was fine and put on a show for others. It has taken me years to fight that emotional toll. So, if I can share those learnings with someone else and help them get through their trauma with a little less pain, it's the least I can do. In my eyes, it is paying it forward from one trauma victim to the next.

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