How to Find Your Footing
by Gary R. McClain, PhD
“I just got diagnosed with cancer. Now what do I do?”
As a therapist who specializes in working with people facing a serious medical diagnosis, including cancer, I see many people come into my office struggling with their emotional reactions to their diagnosis and what it will mean for their lives. We talk about their fears and hopes about treatment, as well as all those strange and uncomfortable feelings that keep bubbling up. And we talk about what a cancer diagnosis means for their future. This is what I tell them.
• Feel your feelings.
When you first received your diagnosis, chances are your emotional foundation was shaky. Your first reaction may have been one of shock or numbness, not feeling much of anything at all. Over a period of hours, or days, the shock most likely gave way to other feelings, like disappointment, sadness, confusion, fear, anger. Your emotions may have been all over the place. And chances are you’re still dealing with a lot of emotions, depending on the day.
Our feelings don’t disappear just because we don’t want to experience them.
The emotional reactions to a cancer diagnosis are a lot like grief. That’s because a cancer diagnosis can feel like a loss. One conversation with your doctor suddenly changed the course of your life, at least for the near future. And you may feel like your life has been turned upside down.
The first step toward finding your footing is to let yourself feel how you feel. It’s normal to have feelings like fear, and anger, and disappointment, and confusion when faced with cancer. Our feelings don’t disappear just because we don’t want to experience them. In fact, suppressing or refusing to acknowledge your feelings actually creates more inner turmoil. When ignored or suppressed, emotions like fear and anger can become overwhelming. But, when you allow yourself to feel, even those feelings you don’t think you should be having, the effect is almost magical. Those negative emotions lose their power to control you. Sure, they might revisit at times, but once you acknowledge your negative emotions and allow yourself to experience them, you open yourself up to feel hope, optimism, and a renewed passion for life.
• Get emotional support.
The key to coping with the emotions brought up by a cancer diagnosis is to find a safe and supportive place to talk things out. Tell the story of how you were diagnosed. Name the feelings your diagnosis has triggered. Ask for any help you need in coping with them. Support is power. Each time you tell your cancer story, you create in yourself the opportunity to release your feelings. This is a crucial step toward processing the emotions you’ve been feeling and coming to an acceptance of your diagnosis.
Who should you talk to? Choose people who can listen without judging you or trying to tell you what to do. Get to know other cancer survivors and ask them how they are coping. Learn what you can from those who are successfully coping with their diagnosis. You might want to consider joining a support group, checking out online support communities, or meeting with a mental health professional. Not all your friends and family members will be able to have the cancer conversation with you, so seek out the ones who are able. Asking for and accepting emotional support is a sign of strength.
• Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions.
It’s normal to question why you got cancer. It’s human nature to want answers and explanations. Sure, the Why me? question is unanswerable, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it. Asking this question can help you get in touch with your emotions. And, ironically, trying to find answers to unanswerable questions is, over time, how our minds come around to accepting unexplainable things, like why certain people get cancer.
Asking for and accepting emotional support is a sign of strength.
You’ll also be asking some other questions along the way. Why me? may be followed by What will happen to me?; What will my life be like?; and Will I ever be normal again? These are very big questions, and the answers are not simple, if there are even any answers at all. But asking the big questions is another step toward finding your footing.
• Make a spiritual connection.
Spirituality – however you define it – can be a major source of support as you cope with cancer. Many of the big questions that arise along this journey may have spiritual answers. Connecting with your personal higher power can help broaden your perspective beyond what you see and experience tangibly.
Spirituality has many definitions, and you can experience it in many ways. You can pray, meditate, read the works of spiritual teachers and apply their philosophies to your life, or become a member of a religious community, church, or synagogue. Simply listening to music that means something to you, enjoying a hobby that makes you forget about yourself, connecting with nature, spending time with loved ones … these can all be spiritual experiences.
Finding Your Footing
A diagnosis of cancer can feel like a punch in the gut. You may be wondering if your life as you have known it has ended. Here is what I tell my clients. With a cancer diagnosis, you are beginning a new chapter in your life. But you are not your diagnosis; your diagnosis is only a part of who you are. Remind yourself every day that you are a fascinating, multi-dimensional human being with a past, a present, and a future that belongs to you and you alone.
Harness all your resources, and face your cancer diagnosis – and everything that comes along with it – from a position of power. Create a realistic, but also optimistic, plan for your future. Embrace the life you have, with all its triumphs, setbacks, surprises, and detours. Look inside. Look around you. Look upward. And you will find your footing.
Dr. Gary McClain is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York, NY, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. You can learn more about Dr. McClain at JustGotDiagnosed.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2017.