This male breast cancer survivor spent a year in residence in a Zen Buddhist Temple. Then he got cancer. Here’s what he learned. First of all, being diagnosed…
Pamela J. Ginsberg, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Doylestown, Pa with over 24 years of experience. She specializes in women’s health, pscyho-oncology, and women’s issues. She is on the Board of Directors for the Cancer Support Community of Greater Philadelphia and a speaker and consultant for several cancer organizations. She can be reached at Pamela J. Ginsberg, Ph.D.
You’ve heard those dreaded words: “You have cancer.” Receiving a cancer diagnosis is often a life-changer, and can be one of the most difficult life circumstances you may ever have to face. Cancer can completely disrupt one’s life and send someone into a tailspin of fear and loss of control of the life that you have worked so hard to achieve. There are a myriad of psychological and logistical tasks that need to be addressed, and they have to be addressed at a time when you feel the most vulnerable and destabilized.
Though it is quite difficult, it is certainly possible to work through these tasks and this diagnosis to, not only re-stabilize your life, but to even grow from the experience. There is a psychological concept called “post-traumatic growth,” which is a process in which we grow stronger and happier through our difficult and traumatic experiences. Post-traumatic growth happens when we take on the cancer experience with a sense of strength, and we are open to the new perspectives and new understanding that can come from such a difficult time.
For example, many people who have had cancer experience a reassessment of their priorities, with a clearer understanding of what is truly important. I often hear from my patients that life after cancer is much more precious, and that they appreciate their family and friend relationships much more. They also find that the experience helps them to understand who their friends really are, and gives them strength to release relationships that do not serve them well. Many patients that I talk to find this to be especially freeing, and they are grateful that the cancer experience afforded them this new perspective.
Empowerment and Confidence
Many patients also feel a renewed sense of personal strength and ability to work through difficulties. They often tell me that at the beginning, they could not imagine how they were going to get through the process, and when they do, they feel empowered and more confident. This is a great example of post-traumatic growth. Often, when we are seriously challenged by life, we rise to the occasion, surprising ourselves at our resiliency and strength.
Though cancer can be an experience fraught with fear, it is important to recognize how your relationship to fear is affecting you. We all have a relationship with fear, and some find that the relationship becomes more problematic with a situation as difficult and worrisome as cancer. However, it is important to recognize that fear is a normal human response and having fear does not mean that you are doing something wrong. But allowing fear to be the driving force for your decisions can lead to regrets later. Make sure that you are thinking through decisions and trying to assess what fear is “asking” you to do, versus what love and logic are “asking” you to do. Make sure you are in the driver’s seat of your decisions, and recognize that fear is only the passenger. You will inevitably feel some fear, but don’t let it control how you respond. Get the facts, talk it through with trusted others, and take your time with your decisions.
Living With Uncertainty
After the cancer diagnosis, and even after treatment is completed, you will find that there is more uncertainty still to come. Your physicians can give you the statistics if you want them, but many people find that there is little comfort in those numbers. One has to learn to live with uncertainty in a way that was never really relevant before cancer. As you know, cancer can really change how you manage difficulty, and learning to embrace life with all of its unknowns can help to create a sense of vitality rather than fear. There is, and has always been, uncertainty in your life, but cancer makes you more aware of it than ever before. Embrace and accept the crazy adventure of life, with all of its twists and turns. Searching for certainty in our lives is often fruitless, and it is almost always driven by fear.
Try to be both realistic and optimistic as you care for yourself. Follow your physician’s instructions for self-monitoring, lifestyle modification, healthy habits, and follow-up exams. But be optimistic about your future, your happiness and life satisfaction. Cancer will be part of your life story, but certainly not the WHOLE story. Being optimistic will also help you to stay focused and on track with healthy habits like clean eating, exercise, stress management, and life balance. Make sure you make future plans and invest in the notion that the future is no less certain today than it was before your diagnosis.
I always tell my patients that they are in charge of writing the cancer story in their lives. You can decide how you move through this experience, what it means to you, and how it has changed you, especially in positive ways. Let this experience strengthen you, your relationships, your priorities and your values. Learn to accept help. And have faith in yourself that you can live a full, meaningful, and beautiful life even after cancer.
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