Today may be the first day you've had to live with the diagnosis of cancer, or it may be one of the many days you have "survived" this disease. Either way, you probably found out that cancer has changed your life in significant ways.
You must cope with changes in your emotions, your health, your body image, your support system, your whole outlook life! Yet, just as cancer has changed your life, the way you live your life can change your cancer - from a monstrous threat to a manageable condition.
WORKING YOUR WAY THROUGH
Medical advances are leading to new cancer treatments every day. Even with promising breakthroughs, however, cancer is often a chronic illness-- or at least the fear of recurrence is always there. Cancer is something you may have to live with for a very long time. This CareNote offers insights from courageous cancer survivors to help you live with cancer one day at a time.
- Build a support team. If your diagnosis of cancer is fairly new, the shock of it may leave you emotionally shaky. Ironically, this can be a time when family and friends find it hard to understand your struggles. They may not know what to say or how to react to your intense emotions. In their confusion they may even avoid you.
Feeling alienated from others during this time is common, but now is not the time to go it alone. Try to remember that your loved ones emotional equilibrium has been shaken too. Maybe they just don't know how to comfort you. Maybe they don't want to face their own fears about losing you.
Communicating your needs and desires to family and friends can be painstaking work. If you've talked and you're still not feeling "heard" try putting your thoughts in a letter. Often just writting about your frustrations can provide relief. A support group of others with cancer can be a great source of comfort and practical advice. Your local newspaper, hospital, or cancer society are good places to start looking for such a group.
- Use anger to your advantage: Anger, or even rage, is a "healthy reaction" the mourning that comes with any serious illness. And as uncomfortable as it may feel, anger can become one of your best assets in your battle.
A radiology technician I know says he can predict which cancer patients are going to survive by observing them during their radiation treatment. He says a person's will to fight is almost more important than his or her medical prognosis. He also notes that those who appear most angry, ironically, seem to have the best chance at recovery.
After a biopsy revealed malignancy in both her breasts, Laura remembers her despair. "All I could think was that I wouldn't be able to see my little grandson grow up," she says. "Then my reaction changed to "I am going to see Brett grow up!" That was seven years ago. Now Laura and her husband look forward to many more years of enjoying life and their grandson.
A fighting spirit does not guarantee a cure. But if you are struggling to overcome your anger, maybe it's time to channel it into your fight for survival instead. A mental health professional or pastoral care counselor can help you learn how to use all your emotions to your advantange.
- Make plans. As cancer patients wrestle against the personal threat that the illness presents, life may seem to stand still for them and their loved ones. Others continue to go to school, change jobs, have babies, take vacations. But with tentative feelings about the future, those striken with cancer may stop living their lives fully. They may even unconsciously give up.
"Without making plans for a dinner party, a movie night out, or that family reunion, I had nothing to look forward to," says Pete of the darknest time during his chemotherapy for bladder cancer. "Finally I realized that although I was physically and mentally slower, I was able to do many of the things I loved doing before. Making plans gave me a sense of control and hope about my future."
If you haven't set goals lately, do it now. Writte down some short-term and longer-range plans. If you've always wanted to learn how to paint, why not investigate that watercolor class today?
When Laura was faced with her mortality, it prompted her to try new things. She and her husband have traveled extensively since her surgery. She also learned how to use a computer and fulfilled her ambition of becoming a published writter. "Since that time, I've done some of the most exciting and creative things in my life," she says.
- Survive what is merely survivable: Before your cancer diagnosis, you may have had an idealistic vision of how you would handle such a crisis. When faced with the challenge of cancer treatment, you may have resolved not merely to endure, but somehow to breeze through it. Cancer is an awful disease. It's treatments can be wretched.
If you are just getting into the active phase of therapy, seasoned cancer patients urge you to do only what is necessary to get by; if keeping a positive outlook seems too taxing during the worst of your medical care, give yourself permission to just "be."
- Forgive yourself. Perhaps treatments are just an unpleasant memory but you still wince when you remember your behavior during that ordeal. Or maybe you are feeling responsible for becoming ill in the first place.
If you are displeased with the way you dealt with the past, talk with loved ones and/or your healthcare professional team. They may be able to give you a more realistic appraisal. Remember, you wouldn't be reading this now if you were not a survivor.
If you have endured surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, large doses of supportive medications, biologics, immunosuppresive therapy or hormone replacement therapy you have a lot to be proud of. This is a good time to forgive yourself for being human.
- Reduce your stress levels: Pshychoneuroimmunology is becoming a part of many medical treatments these days. Though the word is scary, the concept is simple. It refers to the new scientific field that studies how the mind and emotions affect the physical being.
Studies have shown that stress, from whatever source, has a detrimental effect on the immune system. Your best chance of improving your quality of life is by reducing all your areas of stress.
Some people find self-hypnosis, guided imagery or exercise helpful in relaxing. Others feel energized when they devote to being of service to those around them. Still others find a consistent program of spiritual meditation or reading gives their lives emotional balance.
- Realize how scary recovery can be. "You are in remission." Since your diagnosis, you've longed to hear these words. But when the final chemotherapy round is completed and your last doctor visit is scheduled, don't be surprised if you are again flooded with strange feeligns.
During treatment, you teamed up with doctors, nurses, therapists, and friends who ministered to your physical and emotional needs. Suddenly this army of cancer fighters begins to disarm and maybe even disband. If you're feeling abandoned by your support system, take heart.
When you go into remission, it's natural to experience a sense of loss. One more time you are redifining your role as a patient. Though you will be forever changed by your experiences with this illness, remission is a time to gather your forces and learn a new identity. You are no longer a cancer patient, you are a cancer survivor !
TAKE HEART: On your journey through the experience of cancer, you will inevitably have times when you feel you don't have even an ounce of strength left to get yourself through the ordeals of that day. When that happens, go ahead and give it all up -- to the faithful God who walks beside you every step of the way. God will give you the strength you need to get through that day....and the next...and the next....and the next.
About the Author: Claire Bradshaw is a registered nurse and free-lance writter who regularly writes about medical and mental health issues.