Having been treated for breast cancer in 2012/13 and working in the field as a therapist, here are 10 of my cancer lessons (in no particular order) that may help you cope with the emotional impact of cancer. But before that, let me say loud and clear:
There is not a single person, story, book, lecture or talk which will teach us all we need to know to understand the impact of cancer on our lives. That’s what we have to figure out for ourselves when we go through our own cancer lessons.
1. Cancer and treatment affects us not only physically, but also emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually, financially, relationally. Be prepared.
2. Struggling with cancer is not a sign of weakness. Cancer like other life-changing illnesses and their treatment is traumatic. It stands to reason. There is no shame. There should be no blame. Self-care and making changes in your private and working life may be the responsible thing to do.
3. You don’t need to have cancer to be affected by cancer. It affects you even if you do not have the disease. Family and friends are impacted, too, and have support needs.
4. The impact of cancer does not end with treatment. Even if in remission, life will never continue the way it was before. Often we are left with treatment side effects, no more regular medical support and with fear of the future. I can be exhausting and cause depression and anxiety.
5. Your cancer experience can lead to unexpected emotions like mood swings, heightened anxiety and anger. Often others and we ourselves may no longer recognize who we are. It can be upsetting. Work it through. Talk it through. You are not alone.
6. Be prepared to be disappointed. Employers, peers, friends and even family may not necessarily be able or willing to give you the support you need.
7. Living with cancer can be lonely. But we remain who we are, cancer or no cancer. Illness can make us invisible if we let it. Hold on to that!
8. Cancer is unpredictable. Cancer does not necessarily kill because cancer is complex. There are grades and stages, remission, primary, secondary, advanced, terminal. Different cancers have different survival rates. If your cancer returns, it does not necessarily come back in the same area of your body. It all depends. Educate yourself.
9. Try not to pretend nothing has happened. Denial has a limited shelf life. Facing up to your very individual cancer reality is harsh, but in the long-run and if done constructively, can be empowering and enables you to make informed choices.
10. Be an active participant in your own cancer experience and cancer lessons. You have the right to choices. Reach out for help and find out your rights. Do not expect others (including GPs and employers) to have all the answers and know it all. Engage with cancer support services, to ensure you get what you are entitled to. This can save you money, precious time and energy.
Every person and every cancer story is different. If my cancer was to return and/or if it was to be terminal, then I may write this piece slightly differently. It stands to reason and that’s OK, too. Then there will be more cancer lessons.