Here’s how I plan to handle sadness, anger, loneliness, regret and guilt that comes with rebuilding my life after cancer.
Depending on the perspective, I’m either very lucky or very unlucky.
In 2016, at 30 years old, I was diagnosed with bone cancer and ultimately given less than 10% survival rate — not ideal.
Prior to that, I had a pretty great life. I was engaged to the woman I love and was building a successful career in New York City with an abundance of loving family and friends around— for which I’m no doubt blessed.
After I experienced multiple recurrences, doctors had run out of answers and yet somehow with a combination of fierce discipline, relentless pursuit and a great deal of luck, I was able to improve my health and am alive almost five years after receiving such a dark prognosis— very lucky.
Now, as the dust has begun to settle and I find myself trying to find my place again in a world where most others haven't been derailed by cancer, I’m feeling unlucky again. Well, I shouldn’t say that — playing the victim will get me nowhere. It just feels… hard. Especially when back at the hospital during treatment, I had a clear vision of if/when I overcame this dreadful disease, life would be all gratitude and ecstasy, 24/7.
Then, the bigger life decisions started to catch up with me. I’m 37 now; I’ve been out of the workforce for five years, in the same apartment with endless cancer triggers for almost a decade, most of my family and friends have moved out of New York City and far away. Then, of course, there’s the pressure of deciding if I want kids.
To put it mildly, I feel overwhelmed.
Growing up, I’ve always been the type of person who makes responsible, well thought out and synergistic decisions. Yet, in this case, nothing seems to be coming easy. It’s like the puzzle pieces just won’t fit.
I want a new apartment but get sticker shock from the inflated prices. My work skillset is client-facing and sales but I’m also trying to prioritize my wellness and keep down stress. And I’m not quite sure about starting a family — I wish I had more time but feel pressured by how quickly time has moved on while I’ve been holed up in survival mode fighting cancer.
I do my best to stay present and not force the answers, but it’s hard not to feel impatient, especially when comparing myself to others who have moved on with their lives — buying nice houses, starting families, rising in their careers.
At my lowest moments when the anxiety takes over, I find myself spinning in circles from one problem to the next; quite frankly, this gets me nowhere except to feel even more exasperated. But fortunately, while sharing all this with my therapist, we came up with a plan to settle down and work through each day more calmly until the answers begin to reveal themselves.
The key is to stay composed and in control. Not reactive. One of the best ways to achieve this is through mindfulness, and so I’m going to prioritize meditation before bed (guided if easier). This will settle me down at night and set the tone for the following morning.
As for coping with uncomfortable emotions along the way, here’s my plan of attack for dealing with each one:
Sadness: Throw on headphones and escape to music. I also find this helps when I’m anxious, like before scans. In the latter case, I’ll throw on fast-paced, more aggressive music to match the chaotic feeling. But sadness might call for more of a Blues vibe. Whatever the mood, music tends to work like magic for me.
Anger: Music and exercise are my go-to moves. I’ll do some cardio or strength training, bust out some push-ups and counteract the cortisol levels. Or I’ll take the dog out for a long walk. Basically, I plan to find healthier outlets than taking anger out on myself or others.
Loneliness: Time to break out the gratitude list and write down all the friends and people I have around, even if they’re not available at that moment; or, I’ll come up with reminders of why I like the city — for example, I was able to pop right over to the movie theater the other day and catch a concert later that weekend. The convenience and culture are unmatched.
Regret: Gratitude list again,and also a list of future goals. This provides a chance to learn from mistakes without dwelling on the past. I try to use each experience to sharpen my clarity going forward.
Guilt: Here’s where positive self-talk, offering compassion and validating my feelings, comes in. Of course, if I recognize that I did something wrong, I’ll apologize or make an adjustment going forward.
I’m trying to cover my bases here, but again, mindfulness is the foundation because it quiets all the outside noise and helps me stay in touch with my gut feelings. Just like waking up refreshed from an amazing nap, meditation recharges my overworked brain so I can awake feeling like a new person and view circumstances with fresh eyes.
Most importantly, it helps to calm my nervous system so that I can focus on taking things one day at a time and make the kind of decisions that will serve me rather than reacting out of panic. Only time will tell how it all plays out, but this is my approach for now. At the very least, I feel more empowered rather than mindlessly spinning in circles of frustration.
These tactics also provide space for gratitude so that I don’t lose sight of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to rebuild my life after cancer. It may not be easy, but my current state is a way better position to be in than I could have ever imagined back during the darkest days of treatment.
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