6 Steps to Building Resilience after a Cancer Diagnosis
by Diane Tefft Young, MA
The first time I heard the word resilience used in connection with my name, I had just received a single lung transplant. Having been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, I required substantial oxygen simply to breathe, and this transplant saved my life. At age 68, I bounced back from transplant surgery with relative ease, and I felt gratitude in a way I had never imagined.
However, four years after my transplant, I was shocked and saddened to receive a second potentially life-threatening diagnosis: stage III endometrial cancer. It is an acknowledged medical challenge to successfully treat a person with cancer whose life is dependent upon taking twice daily immunosuppressant medications that prevent organ rejection. My cancer treatment began with a hysterectomy, followed by chemotherapy infusions, daily radiation, and then more chemotherapy. It was grueling. But on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2015, thanks be to God, a CT scan revealed I was cancer-free. A survivor!
In my new role of cancer survivor, I felt a mélange of feelings: gratitude, relief, a sense of newly acquired peace and calm. I found that surviving cancer while being immunosuppressed offered a surprising new health confidence. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that when going through something like this, there is a series of steps you can take that will guide you along the path of becoming increasingly resilient.
But before we explore those steps, let’s define resilience. Resilience can be thought of as a personal collection of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that when woven together often provide focus, strength, hope, and vitality. Courage, bravery, and creativity are character traits often seen in those who have successfully faced life’s challenges. A willingness to feel and to be emotionally strong yet vulnerable surfaces, and over time, feelings of compassion and hope often emerge. As resilience becomes integrated into your body, mind, and spirit, joy and a delicious sense of humor are welcomed to return to your life.
Resilience can be thought of as a personal collection of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that when woven together often provide focus, strength, hope, and vitality.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the six steps I’ve found to help build resilience after a cancer diagnosis.
1. Accept your current circumstances.
Accepting where you are right now in this moment opens the door for the seeds of resilience to sprout. When facing an unwelcome health diagnosis or other life disruption, you may feel as though the world has been turned upside down or is otherwise fractured. Wise people respond by remaining calm, steady, and unflappable. Once you allow chaos to reign, poor decisions stack up rapidly, almost without warning.
2. Share with family or close friends.
I’ve learned that by sharing your health concerns or diagnosis with others, the concerns become “real.” The secrecy begins to disappear, and the door is cracked open for receiving support and love from those who know and care about you.
Accepting where you are right now in this moment opens the door for the seeds of resilience to sprout.
3. Practice trust.
As my health rapidly spiraled downward, I knew I would succumb to my disease if a perfect-match lung wasn’t found in time. Once I received the call that such a lung was available, I trusted that my physical life was in the hands of the transplant team. Over time, this faith, hope, and ability to trust has evolved, becoming the backbone of my health and of my life.
4. Befriend your diagnosis.
It is empowering to be well informed about your health. Learning about your diagnosis is not only wise but imperative. Being comfortable conducting research about your disease and treatment options gives you a clear advantage, especially when determining where to go for treatment.
5. Get comfortable with ambiguity.
Ambiguity often accompanies illness, treatment, and recovery. We must be willing to accept this fact if we want to cope well during this phase of life.
6. Assess and enhance your resilience.
Without harsh judgment, jot down your appraisal of your resilience strengths and weaknesses. Enhance your resilience as you identify and continue to add fresh beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. These additional qualities and skills are meant to increase comfort, creativity, and, especially, joy in your life today and into your future.
Diane Young is a skin and uterine cancer survivor living in Upper Arlington, OH. She has written two health memoirs, Cancer Hope: Discovering Survivor Skills and Humbled by the Gift of Life: Reflections on Receiving a Lung Transplant.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2019.