How to come to terms with the emotions of cancer
There are several reasons that cancer is associated with strong emotions. Cancer is an evocative word, which has traditionally referenced a deadly disease. Yet this doesn’t change the fact it is much harder to heal the emotions of cancer, more often than the physical wounds.
What I know to be true, is that upon diagnosis, there is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty thrown in your face. Your mortality is slapped down in front of you. There is an immediate fear of the future, fear of the unknown and fear of losing control.
I still vividly remember the Saturday morning my breast surgeon delivered the news of my pathology results. I had been able to get myself out of my hospital bed unassisted. It physically hurt like hell, but once I got comfy in the upright chair I was able to settle. The bed was for sick people, I didn’t perceive myself sick then. I was simply recovering from mammoth surgery.
When my surgeon sat at the end of my hospital bed, her face was serious and I knew something was wrong. You know that dread you feel watching a suspense movie? You experience that sensation when you know instinctively something is coming and can’t prepare for it?
She informed me that the results were significantly scarier, from what the original scanning and biopsy had shown. That was one of several days the floor disappeared and I felt like Alice falling down the hole.
Hysterical tears don’t even come close to describing everything I felt and experienced that day. Hot mess doesn’t either. But I did both of those things and everything in between. Panic. Terror. Overthinking. Sadness. Worry. Anxiety. I experienced all of it, smothered by it in fact.
There was little resilience left after surgery earlier that week to do anything but cry. At that moment I felt completed defeated. In those conversation moments, my physical pain didn’t even rate. But I was gutted emotionally.
I can now reflect on that horrible day, understanding the true power of the fear of the unknown. It’s crippling and leaves you feeling nothing but raw, extremely vulnerable and very isolated.
The healing I’ve done on myself since has shown me that with patience and the loving support of friends and family, I have turned that raw into MY ROAR!
It did, in fact, take the promised eight weeks to recover from that mammoth reconstructive surgery. In hindsight that was the easy part. The hardest part was dealing with the resultant PTSD emotions that arose from a traumatic biopsy experience.
I had buried myself inside the physical recovery from surgery with very little time to deal with the magnitude of why I had surgery and my diagnosis in the first place.
The subsequent emotional feels that are incorporated deeply with diagnosis, and were often expressed as feelings like dismal failure and depression. Feelings of perpetual entrapment ensued, both physically and mentally.
Identifying dark places
That was a dark hole, which took some intense therapy to work through. With hindsight, I can see exposing the darkness of those negative emotions with external assistance, allowed me to openly explore all the feelings as the gift it was. Healing those emotions was so much more intense and way more challenging than healing from breast cancer surgery.
The talking therapy was the trick. I didn’t avoid it, I couldn’t, for that messy bitch of emotions slapped me every day. I didn’t process having cancer at the time of diagnosis. I was too busy being shuffled between appointments, having surgery and learning to walk again.
The emotional bastard bit me as I started chemo. The feels oozed out with my energy as the magic medicine flooded into my body. This was the time that my strong facade faded. And once again I was back to feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable.
The talking therapist supported me to gently explore the maze within and find myself again. The talking granted permission to the floodgates to open, which had been bolted tight. Those gates had held everything inside. It was everything inside that robbed me of my energy to recover physically.
As soon as I wrote in my journal or purged with my therapist the cascading avalanche of all my stuff spilled out. There was a release. It was those moments of releasing the emotional that granted permission for the physical to relax and heal.
A friend shared the following quote with me during these darker days. The message was received. Be kind to self. Put self first. Do what it takes to heal. So I did.
The emotional roller coaster of cancer is expected and very normal. It’s our human response to a stressful situation. The various things we feel are simply exaggerated because there is a societal perception that we are fighting for our lives.
I worked with a therapist
With the support of my therapist, I dug deeper into the abyss of the connective tissue within the wounds I now wore. Initially, those new lines caused much shame and embarrassment.
I openly explored my old wounds
I openly explored what my breasts had meant to me as an individual, a woman, a girl, an infant, and mother. I healed more mother wounds, and in doing so in poured an immense and deeply felt gratitude for my feminine.
I worked through the physical loss
I worked through what it meant to have nipples, and the grief I felt when I lost one. I was forced to process the new bumps to my milky white chest landscape.
I worked through the tears
I worked through months of crying every time I looked at my new chest landscape. The red scarring, the skin graft, the puckered skin and the limited range of motion made the emotions raw. It was this rawness that slowed the physical recovery. I was looking too closely at physical wounds, spending all my energy literally trying to fix them. Trying to control the uncontrollable.
What I’ve learnt is the depth that connective tissue stores emotional trauma. It stores a negative outlook. The tissue stores the false expectations we think we need. The stretch of the tissue holds onto the need to control and keeps you in a state of physical stuck and emotional disbelief. This equates to non-acceptance and inability to flow physically and mentally.
Now that I am embracing my role as a patient it’s getting easier to see those new landscape lines. I’ve researched tattoo designs, and the meaning of the symbol I’ve learnt that the ancient Amazon Warrior amputated her right breast in order to shoot her arrow strong and true.
The lesson learnt and accepted is that I now point true north — metaphorically, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
If you find yourself, a friend or relative, on the cancer rollercoaster, and the likelihood is that someone in your life will be affected at some time, I offer you this. We are gifted challenges, not to endure but to experience. These challenges which arise enable us to explore more of self. These challenges gift us the chance to choose a mindset to focus on what is in our control and surrender to that which is not.
The more we can soften our emotional and mental perspective, the faster and more at peace our physical vessel will respond.
Karen Humphries is a Kinesiology Practitioner, Health & Business Coach, self-confessed laughaholic, and now Wellness Advocate residing in Gippsland Victoria Australia. She loves being of service to the world with her humorous and positive approach to life, encouraging people to ‘choose to change and bloom from within.’