Your Emotional Recovery from Breast Cancer
by Ronnie Kaye, MFT
“You have breast cancer.” Those are four words no woman ever wants to hear. In addition to being thrust precipitously into an alien world of medical terminology, bewildering choices, and challenging treatments, a woman can also find herself in a state of emotional crisis that can continue through and even beyond the end of treatment.
During the 25 years I have been working with breast cancer survivors on emotional recovery, certain tools have proved extremely useful. Some of them are action steps, while others are simply attitude shifts or revisions of old beliefs. Each tool can help to turn the crisis of breast cancer into an opportunity for personal growth. Here are a few of my favorites.
Survivors ask the right questions.
Survivorship is not the amount of time between diagnosis and the present. That is simply a statistic. Survivorship is an active process. A survivor is someone who trades in the question “Why me?” for the question “What can I learn?” She stops focusing on “How long will I live?” and starts asking, “How well can I live?” Learning and living well are the hallmarks of a survivor.
You are not your body.
You are a heart and a soul. You are your ideas and your emotions, your accomplishments and your dreams. Whatever changes may have resulted from breast cancer treatment, you are much more than a body, and you are whole. If you don’t see yourself that way, you may have been blinded by society’s standards. Throw out those standards because they are wrong. Trust that there are wonderful people in the world who are capable of seeing you as you really are. Then go out and find them.
Whatever changes may have resulted from breast cancer treatment, you are much more than a body, and you are whole.
There is a positive side to facing your mortality.
The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness forces people into a personal confrontation with mortality. Once they get past their shock and their grief, they can begin to see life as a gift and to appreciate every moment. Many of the women I have worked with have told me that they completely rearranged their priorities as a result of their breast cancer diagnosis. They made time matter. They learned to say no to things they really didn’t want to do and yes to things they had only allowed themselves to dream of. They developed themselves spiritually, healed old wounds, repaired damaged relationships, and found ways to love more and laugh more. Like everyone else on the planet, you won’t be here forever. Resolve to use your time well.
Your feelings are valid.
People who criticize your feelings, or try to get you to change them, do so because they feel helpless or afraid. No one – not even someone else who has had breast cancer – can judge your feelings, because no two people will go through any experience in exactly the same way. There is always a good reason for what you feel, even if you are temporarily out of touch with that reason. Whether you are in the midst of crisis or not, it is essential to have people in your life who will understand, accept, and validate your feelings.
Live well even without guarantees.
Normally, when we think of the future, we think of possibilities. We assume that we have a future. We act as though it is guaranteed. After a breast cancer diagnosis, the illusion of that guarantee is often shattered. We feel vulnerable. We fear a recurrence. We are forced to face the reality that anything can happen to anyone at any time. We may fall into despair and disengage from life, unwilling to invest in a future we might not have. In struggling to come to terms with this issue, here is what the survivors I’ve worked with have learned. First, while there are no guarantees after cancer, there were never any guarantees before cancer either. Vulnerability is a fact of life for all human beings, not just for cancer survivors. Second, no matter whether we live 90 more days or 90 more years, we cannot lose, and cancer cannot win as long as we live as fully as possible and refuse to give up our ability to love and grow and our capacity for joy.
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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2012.