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.
Here are three main tips I wish I would have known during my first year of dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
I recently hit my 8-year cancerversary and had a lot to think about. Sometimes it feels like yesterday that I was diagnosed, and sometimes it really feels like it was a long time ago. I recently reflected on everything that had happened through my first eight years of living as a cancer survivor, which got me thinking back to cancer year one. When I was first diagnosed, I couldn't get my hands on enough information about people who were going through cancer, what they were thinking, how they handled it and if they lived long enough to tell about it. So, I figured, why not share some thoughts and even some tips I learned while living that first year of cancer.
1. Mourn who you were before cancer. OK, this may sound kind of sad and depressing, but trust me, this is important. This might be the most important tip I could give anyone newly diagnosed with cancer. This is one of those "no one told me this" type of tips.
I was the biggest hater of the words "new normal." I didn't understand it and I didn't want to hear about when anyone mentioned it to me. I figured I would go through my cancer treatments, recover, have some new scars and then go right back to my old life. There was no doubt I'd be the exact same person I was after cancer that I was pre-diagnosis. Well, that was completely wrong, and it took me months, if not years to see it. I wanted my life to be the exact same the minute that last chemo was finished roaming my body. I wanted to have the same thoughts and feelings I did pre-cancer. No matter how hard any of us try, that is just not possible. That person is gone, and you have to mourn them. You have to mourn your old life and the person you were. I say all this as a positive, not trying to make anyone feel sad or bad about it.
As cancer survivors, whether we like it or not, that old person we once were is gone. Cancer ripped that life right out from under us and we have every right to feel sad, angry and fearful because of it. Mourn that person and that time. It will certainly help you in the long-term recovery of a cancer diagnosis.
2. Acceptance. This is of massive importance. The sooner you accept the diagnosis of cancer you have received, the faster you will start to emotionally heal. This healing can begin before your treatment starts, if you start accepting. There is not much that can change a cancer diagnosis. Short of an actual misdiagnosis, I can't think of anything. I've tried wishing and hoping. Those didn't work. I still had the same breast cancer diagnosis even after I wished for it to go away.
Pretending it didn't exist didn't work, either. My mastectomy surgery was still scheduled, and those chemo appointments were not going away. Accepting was my only choice.
If you are struggling with this, don't worry. It took me almost five years to accept that cancer happened to me and there are still parts of that journey I struggle with. Just open your eyes to the reality of it and acknowledge it is there. Bit by bit, you will recognize your emotions and where you are struggling. This is all part of the acceptance journey of a cancer diagnosis.
3. Stop comparing. This is a waste of time if you try it. I'd strongly suggest not attempting to compare your diagnosis, your treatment and your recovery to anyone else. Everyone is different, plain and simple. So, just because you had the exact same diagnosis as the patient next you, that doesn't mean that you will have the same treatment, same response, or same outcome. Do yourself a favor and don't compare. There are just so many factors that go into a cancer diagnosis and its treatment that you will drive yourself nuts if you compare yourself to someone else. And just for the record, I have tried this….many times. I drove myself crazy with comparing. How come she did better after surgery? Why did their doctor tell them that? That person had a recurrence -will I because we had the same diagnosis? The list of questions never ended. Therefore, the anxiety and fear never ended either. It was not a healthy place for me to be and I believe it hindered my emotional recovery. You are the only one who is you. So, your journey cannot compare. Just listen to your medical team, ask your questions and follow their direction.
Everyone handles their diagnosis and cancer journey different from the next. These are tips learned as I walked down my own path. They are certainly tips I wish I had known from day one of life with cancer. Perhaps they will help the next person who has to wear the similar shoes of a cancer diagnosis.