Cancer is not only physically exhausting, but emotionally draining as well. We often are uncertain over what the future hold for us. Questions surrounding medical treatment and potential side effects and continued quality of life abound. We may discover ourselves overwhelmed by an array of feelings and fears.
When I was suddenly diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, my family and my loved ones were supportive and attempted to understand what I was experiencing. They, too, were in shock and felt helpless at times, just as I did. Their words echoed in my mind, "…if you need something, let us know." My mother accompanied me to my chemotherapy appointments, so I would not be alone while undergoing treatment. My friends would provide transportation and arrange their schedules around my treatments. All this support aided my recovery process and helped me adapt to the impact my diagnosis had on my life.
Despite all this support, however, I found myself feeling depressed and anxious. I tried to concentrate on my treatment and to maintain a positive attitude. Simultaneously, I was concerned over becoming a burden to my family and friends. During this time, I refrained from speaking to them about matters that were really troubling me. Thoughts of life and death pondered in my mind; I asked, "How much time do I have left" and "What if I die?"
It was difficult to speak about these things to those around me as many family members and friends simply did not wish to "go there" or hear me talk about what I was feeling deep inside. I learned that having support does not necessarily mean that people will be able to listen to your darkest fears. It was at this point that the emotional component of my cancer experience became overbearing for me at times.
I tried to be "present" to family and friends who needed me to "carry on my life as usual." I did my best to meet the expectations of those around me, sometimes without thought or consideration for my own feelings. I was living with cancer and undergoing treatment, yet, I was expected to continue on with my life as the person I was before my diagnosis. This was a powerful wake up call for me.
One day, I had an emotional breakdown. It happened so abruptly and "out of the blue" that it even surprised me. The intensity of my emotions that I experienced – especially anger – was profound. What I discovered to be particularly strange was that family and friends did not seem to notice. It all felt like I was skating on thin ice and feeling uncertain as to whether or not the ice would crack under the weight of my emotions.
I was aware of an oncology non-profit organization that offered psychological and emotional support, free of charge. I reached out to the organization. My therapist, who was an oncology psychologist, was a young woman with many years of experience with patients like myself. When I met with her and shared my cancer journey, I saw that we immediately clicked. She listened to my story and validated my feelings. During this first session, I felt as if a miracle had occurred. I found myself relaxed and as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My story was heard, and I was understood. I found a safe space where I could be myself and talk about all those things that lied deep within me.
My therapist shared with me the importance of self-care and self-nurturing. Her words continue to resonate in my head, "You must first take care of yourself as a person living with cancer and not worry about everyone else around you." She empowered me and renewed strength in myself. I continually told myself that I must focus on my wellbeing and reserve my energy for my recovery process. My therapist helped me look at my life and adapt to the multitude of changes that I was undergoing at this moment.
Reaching out for support from this professional oncology psychologist was the most important thing that I did for myself while undergoing treatment. Speaking about what we are experiencing emotionally can help us process and cope with our cancer journey. Therapy can afford us that private space where we can talk about feelings that others who are around us are not willing to hear.
Cancer support groups can be also beneficial to coping. I participated in a support group as well and could witness that I was not alone in my cancer experience. In listening to the stories of the other group members I realized the connection that we shared. Emotions I experienced were simultaneously felt by others in the group.
Talking to a therapist or others in a support group about not only our dreams for the future in the wake of a cancer diagnosis but also, our fear of mortality and death can lead itself to the experience of a more meaningful life. With the support of professionals who can help us address the wide range of challenges that are natural in the cancer experience, we ultimately can work toward improving the quality of our lives.