When cancer came to my door, it brought so many difficult emotions that I did not expect as part of my journey. I thought it would be a medical procedure, that would soon be over.
That wasn’t how it worked.
I did not understand that there was an equally difficult path through the emotional healing. I learned early in my journey that if I didn’t address the emotions that were weighing down on my, I was bound to carry them into the future, which was not a healthy way to complete my cancer journey. It wasn’t enough to say that I had healed physically. It was (and is) critical to acknowledge all the emotions from my cancer journey so that I could also heal emotionally.
I learned that sidestepping was not allowed. I learned that the only way through the emotional storm was to face it head on.
I beg you to not skip this step. Don’t bury your emotions or set them aside. As I like to say, “we can deal with our emotions now, or they will deal with us later.”
Not everyone has the same level of emotional challenge through breast cancer. Some have more, and some have less. That’s ok. The point is to deal with what is in front of you in a healthy way. I learned that there are three primary steps to emotional healing: 1) Release, 2) Realign, and 3) Rediscover.
Let’s walk through the steps together.
Some of the common emotions through a cancer journey include anxiety, fear, and anger. It sometimes starts with anxiety and then turns to fear (of the unknown, the test results, the pain, etc), and then it advances to anger. When fear reaches an overwhelming level, it often turns to anger. Think of your kid missing curfew. First, you are afraid of what might have happened. Were they in a car accident? Did something bad happen? And then, when they finally show up, safe and sound (several hours late), your fear turns to anger. You want to strangle them (maybe not a reaction this harsh, but you get the idea). It is sort of the same thing with breast cancer. First, we are afraid of the what’s to come (diagnosis, tests, treatments, pain level, etc), and then, for some people it turns to anger. I was angry that I had been given this burden to carry because I felt I had done all the right things to NOT get cancer, and I was angry that I had lost control (when in fact, I never really had control in the first place).
When, through my journaling I saw that my fear had turned to anger, I knew it was time to name the monster and set it free. I had to focus on healing my body, and I could not be weighed down with these negative emotions.
Exercise: Burn Your Worries. I learned this exercise from a friend. Write down all those emotions that are weighing heavy on your mind. Spend time reading and focusing on each one. Then, light them on fire. Burn those babies. Once they are a pile of ashes, you are now FREE from them. They can no longer hurt you.
Once I loosened my grip and released the heavy emotions, the next step was to realign my mindset so that I could conquer negative thinking, boost resilience, and regain a more positive outlook.
Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty person? Whichever one you are, you are likely to continue those thought patterns throughout your life unless you stop and learn a new way of thinking.
Through my journey, I learned that I was blaming myself for getting cancer. I must have done something wrong. Was it too much stress? Was I working too hard? Not getting enough exercise? What was it? I thought if I could just find that one “right answer”, I could change things to make sure cancer would never come again. But, that’s not how it works.
I had to acknowledge that cancer was out of my control and that I did not do anything to deserve it.
Again, through my journaling, I learned that I had a choice. I could either stay in my traditional thought process of fear and blame, or I could shift my perspective and acknowledge that I had the choice to be strong (or not). I realized that God did not give me cancer (the old thinking of fear and blame), but that he gave me the strength I needed to get through it (I’m not a victim, I am a warrior). This is the realignment shift that is necessary for true emotional healing.
Exercise: Flipping the Script. Statistics show that on average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. So, for the next 66 days, we are going to spend 5 mins each day being grateful. Grab your journey, or just give yourself the gift of quiet time. Each morning before you get out of bed, think of two things that you are grateful for and focus on them in detail. Gratitude is the best way to realign our negative thoughts and this process is a game changer.
The final step in emotional surrender is that of rediscovery. Once we have loosened our grip on fear and anger, and realigned our mindset to focus more on gratitude, we get to rediscover what our “new life” is going to be. We get to start anew.
For me, it was time to dream with no boundaries and live with no regrets. This doesn’t mean we become “takers” or act selfishly. It means we put ourselves at the top of our priority list and we begin to honor our own personal dreams. Life is short and if we have learned anything through cancer, we learned that you cannot waste time. Tomorrow is never promised, and through this year of the covid pandemic, many of us have witnessed examples of where this hits very close to home.
We should not wait for a pandemic or other health crisis to remind us that life is a gift and that we should squeeze all the joy and happiness out of each day that we can. Don’t waste time.
Exercise: Dream a Little Dream. Do you have a bucket list? Don’t get worried about the name. A bucket list doesn’t mean we are dying, it means we are living life to the fullest! When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I made updating my bucket list a priority. It gave me great joy to dream about what was next “after cancer”. There were so many awesome things I had left to accomplish and writing them in my journal brought me great happiness. Take some time to write down your dreams. What awesome thing are ahead of you? Make sure you not only write them down, but you make plans to accomplish them. Go for it!
Cancer might have been a chapter, but it is not the whole story. Let's get busy writing the remaining chapters!