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Coping with the C-Word
Shirley P. Sorbello, MSW
“The biopsy results showed cancer cells,” Dr. Wilson said to me matter-of-factly. I glazed over upon hearing those words, that took me to a level of reality where I had never ventured.
“Oh, no,” I said, thinking at the same time this couldn’t be happening to me. No one ever believes it could happen to them. People think that somehow it’s everyone else who gets cancer.
At least one in three people in the United States will hear this diagnosis at some time in their lives. Even though advances in early detection and treatment have lessened cancer’s effect as a death sentence, a diagnosis of cancer can still rock anyone’s world as it did mine.
Here are some tips that might help you or a loved-one cope more effectively.
Share Your Diagnosis with Those People Closest to You: It’s normal to feel shock, numbness and denial at first. While you are trying to get your bearings, you need to share some information with people who love you. It’s important for you to feel their love and support as you begin to navigate through this crisis.
Although it can be extremely helpful to talk about your feelings, be cautious about sharing this information with everyone. You may get some unwanted advice and hear horror stories as well. Be aware that not everyone will react to your news in a similar way. If it’s not the reaction you were expecting or hoping for, it probably says more about their hang-ups than how they feel about you. Don’t be hurt or discouraged by it. You will find that most people will offer a listening ear and physical support. You may even be lucky enough to have a friend who went through what you are going through. His or her input can be extremely reassuring. If you have any serious questions or concerns, don’t ask your friends, ask your doctor.
Remember, however, that while interacting with others can be helpful, you are your own strongest support. If you can’t talk about it, perhaps you can write about your thoughts or feelings in a notebook or journal.
Make Necessary Appointments: Whether you need to see an oncologist, surgeon, radiologist, or need more testing, don’t wait to do it. Sometimes it takes a while to get an appointment. Procrastination can increase your anxiety. Looking back, you will be glad you didn’t delay. Follow your gut feelings when it comes to getting a second opinion or making decisions about treatment. Something inside of you knows what is best for you.
Take someone with you when you first go to a surgeon or oncologist. That way, you won’t feel as alone as I did when a bald patient came out of the office shaking her head. I could only imagine the scary news she must have received, and then I worried more about what I was going to hear about myself.
Be Kind to Yourself: It’s important to nurture and take care of yourself at this time. Do the things that make you feel happy. Go for that massage you’ve been wanting, see a movie you’ve been thinking about, or buy a new purse or book that will perk up your spirits. Get your sleep, eat healthy and spend more time with people you enjoy being with. Remember it’s your turn now to put yourself first.
Continue with Your Normal Routine: Doing normal things keeps you from obsessing or worrying about what’s ahead for you. As much as possible, adhere to your regular schedule or go ahead with any special plans you have. I had been looking forward to a short trip before I was diagnosed. I choose to go through with it even though it meant I didn’t return until the day before my surgery. Looking back, I am glad that I went, as it helped to occupy my time with enjoyable moments. I undoubtedly went into surgery with a more relaxed, positive attitude than I would have if I had been sitting at home worrying.
Stay in the Present Moment: As much as possible, refrain from “what if’s.” Take one day at a time. Tomorrow is promised to no one. Worrying about things that may never happen is useless and will stress you out.
Seek Spiritual Comfort: If you are religiously or spiritually inclined, you may find comfort in speaking with your priest, pastor or a friend who shares your spiritual perspective. If your present spiritual perspective does not seem to be serving you adequately, perhaps it’s time to explore some new avenues. Visit your local bookstore and see what attracts your attention.
Both meditation and guided imagery are spiritually-related practices that are excellent for your health. If you’ve never meditated before, this is probably not the time to begin as it does require practice and concentration. If you have meditated before, then you might benefit from returning to a regular practice. With guided imagery, you need only to sit back, relax and listen to a calming voice on a CD or the internet that leads you on a healing journey of images and positive feelings. I found that listening to guided healing imagery on the internet prior to my surgery helped me stay calmer and more centered than I would have otherwise been.
It’s Okay to be Afraid: It is normal to feel some degree of fear or anxiety when facing a diagnosis of cancer. It’s okay to cry. Acknowledge your feelings, for they are genuinely your own, but don’t neglect to look for that pillar of strength that resides inside of you. You’ve been through tough times in the past. What sustained you then? It’s still there. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and you will feel your strength deep inside. I promise you it’s there.
Think Positive Thoughts: People with the most positive outlooks generally do better with cancer treatment and recovery. Think about your life. What are you thankful for? Perhaps it’s a relationship, your children or your career. Being thankful for the good things in your life has been shown to decrease depression and elevate mood. Make a habit of thinking of everything you are thankful for and feeling a sense of appreciation about it at least once a day.
Affirmations can be helpful too. They are positive statements about “what is.” Look into your mirror in the morning and at nighttime, and say a few times out loud something positive like, “I am radiantly healthy and cancer free.” Or, make up something that is meaningful to you. The important thing to remember is to speak as if it is already happening now, not as a future event.
Creative visualization is another useful tool. Sit down, relax and take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes and picture yourself healthy and doing well in life. Imagine a neighbor saying to you, “You look well,” and you replying with a smile, “I feel great.” Picture a visit to your doctor. He is saying, “You are doing really well. I am really pleased with your test results. Keep up the good work.” Feel the joy!
Most importantly, use this whole experience to look at where you are in your life. What matters to you? What is working and not working? What is it time to let go of? What haven’t you done, that you’ve wanted to do? This glimpse of your own mortality can lead you to a richer, more fulfilling life…one that you truly value and love.