Learning to Cope with Cancer – A Therapist’s Response to One Woman’s Personal Essay
You are not going crazy, though it sometimes feels like it. You are coping with a new reality, and it’s okay.
One of our long-time contributors, a breast cancer survivor named Julie, wrote a personal essay about how she learned to cope with cancer. On this page, licensed therapist Dr. Lisa Shusterman responds to Julie’s essay.
This is how to cope with cancer.
In her writing, Turn and Face the Sun, Julie Auton describes how she lives her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. From my therapist’s perspective, Julie’s column is a model of mental health. She openly faces her fears, accepts them as normal and finds a way to live well in spite of them.
Apprehension about how to cope with cancer is normal
Julie reveals that, after her cancer diagnosis, she feels
- a sense of heightened vulnerability
- a worry about recurrence, and
- a fear of death.
Such concerns are to be expected. Everyone who copes with cancer experiences these fears. The diagnosis of breast cancer makes us feel out of control.
Questions occupy the mind: What was the cause of the cancer? Will I be able to tolerate the treatments? Will the treatments work? Will I survive? If I do survive, will the cancer recur? Can I do anything differently to prevent a recurrence? How will my family cope with my cancer? Will I see my children grow up? It’s a lot to take on.
Sometimes women tell me in counseling sessions that the “out of control” feeling makes them wonder if they are going crazy. The answer is no — you’re not going crazy. You are coping — learning to deal with a difficult new reality in your life — the reality that you have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
This changes your life — so it requires some mental health work
A cancer diagnosis changes your life. One way is that from the time of diagnosis, almost everyone becomes hyper-sensitive to bodily sensations.
Julie reveals in her essay that a normal post-exercise back ache, a common headache, and everyday fatigue make her worry about recurrent cancer. Deciding when to see a doctor about a physical problem and when to accept a physical problem as normal remains an on-going dilemma while you cope with cancer. When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of over-reacting than to ignore physical issues. If, however, you find that the anxiety about every little twinge or pain interferes with your ability to think clearly or sleep, talk with a counselor.
Another way coping with cancer changes your life: fearing— or becoming comfortable with — the concept of death.
Julie writes that “fear of cancer (and, ultimately, death) is now my constant — though, uninvited — companion.” When someone hears that she has cancer, even if it is caught early and the prognosis is good, it’s natural to wonder if cancer will be her cause of death. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to think about it; it’s the elephant in the room. Cancer may be your cause of death or it may not, but you need to deal directly with your fear or it can paralyze you. Well-meaning friends and relatives may try to talk a woman out of her fear of death from cancer, but it is actually healthier, from a psychological point of view, for a patient to speak honestly about her worries. Talking about a fear puts air in it and makes it lighter.
Strategies for how to cope with cancer
Living well after a diagnosis of cancer can be challenging. Some helpful coping strategies:
- Take control when you can. Make choices everyday that enhance your life. Make choices so that you will have no regrets, whatever that means to you.
- Be prepared, but focus on living. Write your will and your advanced directives so that you know that you are ready for the worst case scenario. Then, don’t just cope with cancer: Live well. For Julie this means choosing to travel the world and take horseback riding lessons. For others it may mean repairing a problematic relationship, finding a less stressful job, or learning to knit. It could mean cleaning less and playing more, or learning to take care of you instead of always taking care of others.
Julie is a good example of someone who used her cancer diagnosis as a chance to choose what she really wanted her life to be. She made cancer a new beginning instead of an ending point. Putting your life in perspective is the best way to cope with your cancer — and choosing to live the life you want to live will help you to regain a sense of control over your life.