Isn’t it fascinating how a life can instantly change forever so unexpectedly? Someone may win the lottery, by chance meet a future spouse, sadly lose a loved one, or suddenly learn of a devastating diagnosis. These life-altering experiences can stir up feelings, fears, and challenges for the individual directly involved, as well as for the surrounding network of family and friends. When it is a joyful event that touches our lives, we are only too happy to embrace it and share it with those close to us. We even allow others in to share our pain when experiencing the darkness of a deep loss, with the ritual of sitting Shiva ensuring that we do so.
A serious diagnosis, like cancer, is a unique life-changing experience that can leave us feeling scared, alone, and somewhat different. Often under such stress, we may “choose” to retreat into a lonely, scary place, and in essence shut out the world. In that darkness, we tend to mull over all our fears and what-ifs, and a distrust of our own mortality begins to settle in. Thoughts of a scary and unpredictable world flood our minds and the earth no longer feels sturdy enough for us to stand on. During times like this, it is crucial to remember that life does go on! Once completing the tasks of accepting the reality of our loss (of life as we once knew it), and allowing ourselves to experience the pain of our grief, we can then ultimately adjust to our new environment, living and appreciating our new reality.
Hearing the words “you have cancer” can create an instant sense of utter powerlessness, thus triggering a sensory overload of hopelessness and panic that are potent enough to paralyze us. Shock, denial, disbelief, and anger are all normal reactions to such distressing news. Daily functioning gets interrupted as we find it difficult to eat, sleep, and process information. The magic of time tends to give us the perspective we need, making it possible for us to internalize the new realm we have reluctantly stepped into. Once the reality of the situation begins to settle in, many of us feel an overwhelming need to become as informed as possible. This empowering education enables us to make better decisions and gives us a sense of desperately needed control over our lives. With the resolution of important decisions and the commencement of treatment comes a sense of hope as we gradually take back some power.
We are no longer passive victims, but active participants with a personal goal of survival.
Coping during such distressing times can be quite difficult. You may find some of the following techniques helpful. Take one day at a time; try to stay focused on the tasks of the day; any big task can seem overwhelming till you break it down into manageable parts. Get lots of rest; studies show that sleep helps boost the immune system, improves fatigue, and generally enhances coping skills. Be well-informed and educate yourself; this will help to mentally prepare you for each event, and help you to become less fearful and more self-confident; knowledge is empowering – the more we know, the more in control we feel. Have a good support system; an important aspect of health is our sense of connection to other people; we need to feel loved, secure, and happy; seek formal support if you feel you need it (i.e. support groups, individual therapy). Learn to accept help; others can wash your dishes and cook your meals - only you can fight your cancer. Try to stay positive, but remember that low periods will occur. Try to see the humor in things; studies show that laughing lowers the level of stress hormones and is good for you. It is important to rely on your own ways of coping that have always helped you. From talking things out to quietly meditating...if it works for you, do it. But if what you are doing or are used to doing is not working for you, do not hesitate to seek help in finding other ways to cope.
As crazy as it may seem, a cancer diagnosis can have a silver lining. Many survivors have reported positive and enriching outcomes emerging from their ordeals. Some of the enlightening experiences these people report are coming to the realization of how precious life really is, finding meaning in life and enjoying every second, going from living life passively to living life actively, appreciating the simple things in life and looking for new things to enjoy all of the time. Facing a life-threatening diagnosis has led many to develop strengths, skills, and attitudes they never knew they had or needed. Nobody wants to have cancer, but cancer is a reality of life, and the reality of it is that it is not a death sentence, that most people with cancer do go on to live long lives, and that some good could be part of the experience.