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Finding Emotional Honesty in the Complicated Extremes of Cancer

I'm hopeful and scared. Why it's OK to feel both at once when you're living with cancer.
PUBLISHED May 05, 2017
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Living with metastatic breast cancer isn't easy. For me, one of the struggles has been with the uncertainty of this disease, which we'd love to call "chronic" when it really isn't.

Living longer than expected, but not as long as someone else, wondering what the next scan could bring or if the drug that causes heart problems is busy doing that in your own heart can put emotional highs and lows into a whole new category of extremes.

 
Recognizing that we are living with extremes is the first baby step in learning to live with them. Overcoming the extremes? That takes some serious effort. The truth is that sometimes I handle the ups, and worse, the downs, very, very, very poorly.

I feel tired and I take it out on my husband by losing patience; I feel scared so I express it through anger at someone who makes a mistake while driving; I'm full of worry and I try to manage it by eating food that I once found soothing.

 
One of the keys to living with an ongoing health crisis is to try to smooth out those highs and lows. Yes, you want to feel joy and euphoria, but to lessen the difference between those high-flying emotions and the depths of despair, by bringing despair into a more manageable range, you sometimes have to work hard.
 
Fortunately, there is the occasional "oh, wow!" moment that manages to shift your perspective for you in a lightening fast rush of understanding.
 
I've started practicing something I learned at the recent Living Beyond Breast Cancer conference on metastatic breast cancer (lbbc.org). One speaker, Kelly Grosklags, a board certified clinical social worker in Minnesota, caught me off guard as she talked about how we so often think in terms of either/or: I am either hopeless or I'm hopeful. I'm either happy or I'm devastated. Most importantly, for me, is the idea that I am either sick or I am well. 
 
As a woman with metastatic breast cancer, I accept the idea that I am just simply not going to be considered "well" by any doctor I ever meet, probably for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, my friends and family usually don't see me as "sick" (and if they do, they do a darn good job of disguising that). And me? I struggle to see myself exclusively in either of these categories, I'm both, right? That's how I feel! But for the person with cancer, the label is always there and it is always either "sick" or "survivor."
 
So, when Kelly pointed out that the problem lies in the either/or mindset, I wanted to jump out of my seat. Switch that thinking to "both/and" to find a bit more peace, a lot more honesty about the emotions we feel, and fewer bumps on that emotional roller coaster. I am both fearful and hopeful, both anxious and strong, both sick and well. Both sick and well.
 
I am well enough to do pretty much anything I want. I can walk, ride a bike, go on a trip, hug my family, complete a job, plant a garden. I am also sick, and my trips to the cancer center do a good job of reminding me about that. I can feel nauseous, tired, angry and still have that "and" reminding me I am also well enough to get on with living.

It is the immediacy of this change in perspective that has astonished me. I know each of us is a complicated person, with complicated and sometimes contrary beliefs about ourselves. But, despite knowing that, I was forcing myself to deny the complexity of my emotions by continuing to live in an either/or world. In the past when someone has asked me how I am doing, I'd mumble "fine" or, when feeling especially not well, would say "it's complicated."

Not anymore. I'm practicing living where the emotions are more stable and a lot more complete. Go ahead and ask me how I'm doing. "Excited about life and scared" doesn't sound like such a bad answer.
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