This is my honest and heartfelt letter to anyone diagnosed with cancer. I was told I had cancer in the fall of October 2013. It devastated me. I found it tremendously hard to navigate my emotions, while trying to listen to the advice given by my medical care team. It is an immensely stressful time emotionally, physically and spiritually.
I was in a numbing fog for the good majority of the months after my diagnosis. The aggressive grade of my breast cancer catapulted me into surgery, followed quickly with chemotherapy and radiation. My doctors, nurses and entire medical team were top notch. But, I was just another cancer patient. It was their job to care for me. And while they did this job very well, it was rather impersonal. I sincerely wished for good solid advice from someone who cared. I wanted to know what I could do, beyond doctor prescribed tests and treatments, to deal with this retched illness.
So, almost 5 years later, after a lot of reading, webinars, a little bit of professional therapy and chatting with other cancer patients and survivors, I developed some tidbits of advice for those dealing with cancer. While I am specifically addressing those newly diagnosed, I hope my words also reach out to those fighting cancer, surviving cancer or caring for someone with cancer.
Own Your Emotions
There is a lot of pressure for those newly diagnosed with cancer to “stay positive”. Truth be told, I didn’t have a positive ounce of anything in me after my diagnosis. My reaction was blank and emotionless. I was numb. However, other patients and survivors I have talked to have experienced a wide range of emotions. Some can’t stop crying. Some experience overwhelming anxiety and depression. For as many people out there that are diagnosed with cancer, there are that many different types of reactions to hearing those word “you have cancer”.
Many people told me that I was handling my diagnosis well. But, in reality, I wasn’t handling it at all. It was overwhelming. I could not process it.
When it finally sunk in, it hit me all at once. All those negative emotions slammed into me and I was not prepared. I was angry, upset, scared and a lot of other negative emotions that probably don’t even have names.
It’s okay to cry
I was in my acupuncturist’s office at the time when I suddenly broke down and couldn’t stop crying. If you are going to have an emotional breakdown, this is the place to do it. My acupuncturist was amazingly patient with me. She also knew exactly where to place that tiny needle in my ear. A wave of warmth swept threw me and I was able to calm down and stop crying.
For a star to be born, there is one thing that must happen: a gaseous nebula must collapse. So, collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction. This is your rebirth.– unknown –
It’s okay to not be okay
I want you to know that any and all of the emotions you are experiencing now after your diagnosis are absolutely and completely okay. There is no right or wrong way to deal with a cancer diagnosis. My gosh, cancer is not normal, why do we expect our emotions to be controlled and “normal”. There is no “normal” way to handle this.
So whatever you are feeling, feel it. Own it.
It is okay to feel Not Very Okay At All. It can be quite normal, in fact.– Piglet, when talking with Winnie The Pooh –
Psychology research tells us that allowing ourselves to feel our emotions is healthy. It allows us to process them and deal with them faster. The alternative is to try to suppress them, which prevents us from addressing them, creating chronic issues that take a long time to resolve.
You don’t have to be brave and put on a happy face. You have cancer. It’s not a happy thing. No one should ever expect this of you.
It’s okay to seek help
Also know that it is perfectly acceptable to seek professional help to sort out your emotions. If you are feeling overwhelmed or just need to talk it through, ask your cancer center or oncologist for a referral. Most cancer centers and hospitals also have support services that can help you understand and process what you are going through. You do not have to be alone in this. Ask for help if you need it. Seeking help is a smart choice, not a sign of weakness.
Sometimes asking for help is the most meaningful example of self-reliance.– US Senetor Cory Booker –
Time does heal
I also want you to know that it does get easier. Those intense feelings in the beginning will subside and fade a little into the background after awhile. It will take time, so allow yourself the time to get there. Give yourself permission to take as much time as you need.
One cannot tell when he is going to be healed, so do not try to set an exact time limit.– Paramahansa Yogananda –
Prognosis is Overrated
As a cancer patient, I was desperate to learn what my prognosis was. We all want to know what our chances of successfully fighting this disease and living for a long time afterwards. We want to hear that we have a good prognosis.
But your doctor doesn’t know exactly. He can only tell you what the average is. Those averages are based on statistics. Numbers. Those impersonal numbers only tell you what has happened to a group of people in the past. Those numbers cannot tell you what your individual experience will be. No one can know that.
A forecast of the likely outcome of a disease– Definition of Prognosis –
The definition of prognosis is a forecast of the likely outcome, just like a meteorologist predicting the weather. How often is the weather forecast accurate? Sometimes, but not all the time.
A story of hope
I was told a story about a man, a friend, with a rare and aggressive cancer. This story has resonated and stuck with me to this very day. I wish to share this with you now. His is a true story of hope.
This man was given a 10% chance of beating his cancer with very aggressive and debilitating treatments. That is a very dismal prognosis. The man entered a deep depression about his impending death. Doctors told him that he had less than 6 months to live.
One day, after a particularly tough emotional episode, he had a sudden thought. Yes, the prognosis was actually a 90% chance of dying in 6 months. But there was a 10% chance that he wouldn’t die. Why could he not be one of the 10% that lives? There was absolutely no reason to believe he could not fight and try for that 10%. So, he decided to fight and try.
Eight years later, this man is still alive and cancer free.
No matter your prognosis, there is always hope.
Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.– unknown –
Doctors know a lot, but they can’t know everything. There is so much research out there published in a plethora of journals, it is impossible to keep up with all the research. Your oncologist likely only subscribes to a few of the more popular ones. Of course this is okay. It is impossible for them to read it ALL. But with so many types and grades of cancer, each having its own uniqueness and treatments, you really need to do a little homework of your own. You need to be an advocate for yourself, and to do this, you need information.
I can hear all the doctors and nurses sighing and cringing now.
They cringe, because most patients will take to the internet and find all the weird and bizarre alternative facts and treatments that exist out there in cyberspace.
A word of caution about looking things up on the Internet
Be careful when doing your own research. There is a lot of garbage information out there. You want to find reputable sources. How do you tell the garbage stuff from the good stuff? Well, let me give you a few guidelines.
- Promise a cure
- Try to sell you a cure
- Can’t back the information with valid scientific evidence from a peer reviewed journal
- Haven’t updated the sites information recently or don’t have dates on posts
- Have outdated or broken links on their site
- Have no author or contact information on the site
- Sometimes have poorly designed sites with grammatical or spelling errors
Ask your oncology team
If you find good information from a reputable source that seems like it may help you, don’t just jump in right away. Talk to your cancer treatment team about it first. They should be open to new ideas and integrative medicine. But don’t be too disappointed or stubborn if they advise you against what you’ve found. Ask them why or why not questions. Remember, they do know a lot about cancer. They spent years studying it.
If your oncology team still isn’t receptive to what you’ve found and you are convinced that this is the direction you want to go, go get a second opinion. Go get a third opinion, for that matter. Seeking the opinions of other medical professionals is okay. Your oncologist has probably done this too. They chat with their colleagues all the time. They also usually have formal rounds to discuss cases too. Ask them if they’ve discussed your case with anyone and what the result of that conversation was.
Find a Cancer Support Group
You will need support to help get you through this. It could be emotional support or informational support, but you will need help at some point. And that is completely okay. You have cancer, that’s so tough to deal with. You don’t have to do this alone.
Life is not a solo act. It’s a huge collaboration, and we all need to assemble around us the people who care about us and support us in times of strife.– Tim Gunn –
We often want to lean on friends and family for this support. That makes sense. They know and love us. We’ve confided in them before for other things. But a cancer diagnosis is a very heavy and confusing subject, full of emotions. Friends and family who haven’t gone through a cancer diagnosis won’t be able to completely understand what you are going through. They love you and may be willing to support you as much as they can, but they just can’t truly understand unless they have been through it themselves.
Talking with others dealing with cancer is a good thing
I will tell you that it is such a fantastic relief to meet and talk to fellow survivors. Just knowing someone has experienced what you are going through, although so unfortunate, is comforting.
For example, I was having some issues with my brain function after my treatments were finished. I knew about “chemo brain”, but wasn’t aware that it could last for years after treatments were done. I felt like I was going crazy because I lost specific memories, had trouble focusing on common tasks and became completely lost in areas I should have been familiar with. My fellow survivors told me they had similar experiences. Oddly, I took a bit of comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. I had validation that I was not crazy. We shared with each other what helped and what didn’t.
You can find cancer support groups locally through your cancer center. You just have to ask. They should know where to find these groups.
Give Loved Ones Time
Your friends and family may need support too. Leaning on loved ones is okay. But they are also trying to process that you have cancer. They are trying to deal with your diagnosis too. So don’t be surprised or unkind should they not be able to support you in the way you need to be supported right now.
Cancer affects all of us, whether you’re a daughter, mother, sister, friend, coworker, doctor, or patient.– Jennifer Aniston –
We are not taught how to deal with the thought of someone we love being sick, having cancer or potentially dying. We don’t want to think about these things, ever. But then we are forced to. It is a shock for them too. They are going through their own series of emotions and trauma.
Give them the space and time to process the information and their emotions in their own way.
Those who love us are deeply affected too
Yes, you are the one with cancer. What you are going through is horrible. But try to take a step back and see their struggle through this too. It could explain why they say what they said or why they did what they did. They may not know how to respond or respond to you inappropriately. They may just not seem to understand what you are going through. And they don’t, really. It’s a lot to ask of them.
They may need professional support too. Ask them. Most cancer centers’ support services will also help family members deal with your cancer diagnosis.
Take Time for Yourself
Throughout your diagnosis and treatments, there will be ups and downs both emotionally and physically. During your treatments, especially, you will have times when you feel weak, tired, painful and ill. But there will also be times when you feel better and even strong.
When we are weak and sick, our energy drains from us. At that moment, it is our only job to fight and get better. While this may “appear” to be focusing on yourself, it is not. It is merely surviving. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do anything except rest and heal when you feel like this. Let others help you during this time.
When we feel better, there is a tendency for us to try to get stuff done. We seem to be weak and ill so often and we feel like a burden asking for help so much. So, when we finally have some strength and energy, we try to accomplish tasks that we couldn’t before.
Remember to treat yourself occasionally
However, these times of strength and energy should also be about taking time for yourself. Enjoying life to its fullness is important. Yes, get some stuff done. But, save some strength, energy and time to treat yourself to something you enjoy. Go for a walk. Enjoy a hobby. Have a picnic with friends and family. Find joy in life again. You deserve this.
When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.– Jean Shinoda Bolen –
Eat Well & Be Active
I have rediscovered the benefits of eating well and being active. We need to treat our bodies well so that we can feel well. One third of all cancers are related to unhealthy lifestyles. Mine was. I was overweight, inactive and had poor eating habits.
It is never too late to start treating your body right. I started to eat better and become more active. I put my health first. As a mother and wife, I was no good to my family when I was sick. I felt like I was a burden to them in my weakened state. To put my health first is putting my family first.
An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.– unknown –
Eating well does not mean dieting. It does not mean giving up all the foods you love. Eating well is about choosing to eat healthy foods most of the time. It is about portion control and eating just enough to satisfy our bodies.
I have and will continue to write about making healthy food choices here at Pink Ribbon Runner. There is so much information out there, that this article would be endless if I wrote about it all here. If you want a good start to healthy eating, have a look at what I have written so far in the Healthy Eating archives.
Just know that you deserve to feel well. You deserve to feel as healthy as you can. That starts with what you feed your body.
Let food be thy medicine.– Hippocrates –
Healthy isn’t just about what we feed our bodies. It is also about what we do with our bodies. Research has shown us time and again that being active can help us live longer with a better quality of life.
I have personally experienced less side effects of my cancer treatments since I started running. This is the main reason I started Pink Ribbon Runner. I wanted to help get the word out that exercise is a fantastic way to heal yourself from the damage that cancer and cancer treatments have done to our bodies.
It doesn’t have to be running. Although, running is one of the best activities for a healthy lifestyle. I might be a bit biased in saying that, because I run. There is some science to back up my statement. But you can do any activity that you enjoy, as long as it gets your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes per day.
If you can only walk slowly to the end of the block right now, then do that. Go a few steps further the next day, and again the day after that. It all adds up to a healthier you.
Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.– Plato –
What do sticky notes have to do with cancer? They helped me take one day at a time and focus on what really mattered.
During my cancer treatments, I put sticky notes on my bedroom wall. I chose one color for the days that I had a treatment and another color for the days that I didn’t. I put them up on my wall where I could visually see what I had left to tackle. After each day, I would take the sticky note off my wall and tear it up into tiny little pieces. This act of tearing up the little piece of paper was very therapeutic for me.
Sticky notes helped accomplished several things for me…
- I was visually able to see and focus on what I had left to tackle.
- It kept track of my treatments, so that my brain didn’t have to do that.
- I could visually see the end to my treatments.
- Ripping up the papers let me take my frustration out.
- Ripping up the paper let me put each day into the past and be done with it.
- I could still visually see how far I had come by how few papers were left up on my wall.
- My family could also see what was next.
I did this for all my chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It helped me tremendously.
Take One Day at a Time
My last little piece of advice is probably the most important. It is also the most cliche. You have heard it before. It isn’t a new concept. But, it truly is what got me through my treatments. It helps me to this very day as a cancer survivor.
Take it one day at a time.
Every day that I challenge this cancer and survive is a victory for me.– Ingrid Bergman –
Don’t worry about the future.
We don’t know how much time we have left in this world. We can’t know what our future holds. Worrying about it will only waste energy. Our time is better spent doing other things.
Don’t fret about the past.
The past is done. It can’t be changed or undone. Moving forward is what counts. Forgive and live. Holding onto negative feelings will only prevent you from being happy.
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.– Mother Theresa –
Live in the moment.
As time goes on and as you are able, try to find joy and peace in every single day. Teach yourself to acknowledge the happy moments no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. If it is for only a fleeting moment, allow yourself to feel happy. Laugh with a friend. Smell those flowers. Watch a funny movie. Take pride in a craft. The more you do this, the easier and more frequent it becomes.
Take a minute with me right now: Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Let your body relax. Feel your heart beating. Clear your mind of any thoughts. In this very moment, this is ALL you need to do.
Spend a few minutes every day doing this and just listen to yourself breathe.
Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.– Oprah Winfrey –
I am so sorry that you are dealing with cancer. Cancer truly sucks. Find your strength to fight. My hope is that my words have helped you in some small way.
I sincerely wish you eventual happiness and peace through this wretched turmoil.– Tricia Prince, Pink Ribbon Runner