DEALING WITH FEELINGS
Be prepared to experience all sorts of crazy emotions
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS
When you first learn that you are joining this most exclusive group of YWBC (yes we acronym’d it, everyone else is doing it) there will be thousands, if not millions of questions racing around in your brain. We’re not going to promise that you’re always going to be happy with the answers to these questions, and furthermore – many of your most burning questions do not have answers at all – it’s all part of the journey.
Even if you have a family history of breast cancer – the three words ‘you have cancer’ will hit you like an unseen freight train – hard, unexpected and devastating.
Those first few hours can roll into days and into weeks, passing in a sea of disbelief as you wander around alternating between dumb silence and tears of anger, fear and sadness. Its important to do what feels right for you – sleep, scream, shout, hide away, surround yourself with friends – there’s no right or wrong here its just about getting through.
Know that this too will pass and like any shock and grief you eventually come to start realising and accepting what’s happened to you and from this place you start to move on to even more perplexing questions.
CANCER? AM I GOING TO DIE?
The C word conjures up all sorts of thoughts, but undoubtedly the most prominent one is the very real fear that this disease has the power to end your life. Even saying the word ‘cancer’ out loud can cause you to gag and stutter and it puts the fear of death into everyone around you as well as yourself.
While we all know that we have an eventual expiry date (or best before), having to face its proximity in the prime of our lives is shocking and heartbreaking. The fear manifests in many forms such as anger, anxiety and depression, and stays to some degree from diagnosis, right through treatment and out the other side.
Unlike the cancer itself, there is no real cure for the fear and it’s the biggest part of any cancer experience. Recognising its many faces and being able to sit with it in the present moment through mindfulness are really the only way forward. Make no mistake, at first cancer is most certainly in the driving seat. As time progresses it becomes a passenger and eventually it takes more of a back seat driving role (and we all know how much we love those!). Cancer will always be part of your life and may forever give unwanted directions from the back seat, but once the shock has passed you will once again be the driving force of your life.
Professional counselling (particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy CBT) really works at giving you tools to recognise and deal with your fears so you can start to function in this new normal.
Like a 4 year-old trying to make sense of this crazy world, at some point you’ll find yourself tied up in knots in a ‘why?’ stage that goes something like this…
Why me? Did I ……..(insert one/any/all of the following…)
Do something wrong?
Drink too much?
Use the wrong deodorant?
Wear the wrong bra?
Eat the wrong food?
Experiement with with drugs and shouldn’t have?
Get too stressed?
Use too many chemicals to clean my loo?
Not look after myself?
Leave it too long to have my children?
Think too many negative thoughts?
Blah Blah Blah…
This is eternally frustrating as a) you’ll find that the list of possible scenarios is endless and b) you’ll never know either way what caused your particular cancer in your particular body at this particular time in your life.
Cancer is believed to be a product of the interaction between our personal genetics and our environment which pretty much covers everything we eat, drink, wear, say, think and do. For some, a genetic mutation such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene increases your disposition to cancer but even then not 100% of those individuals get breast cancer. If there was a clear answer to what caused it – we’d be closer to a cure.
There is one short answer to all of this that you’ll end up at anyway and funnily enough it’s the same one you’ll eventually give the 4 year old stuck in the same dilemma – its because that’s just the way it is.
WHY NOT HER?
Why me? is usually accompanied by its equally frustrating and ugly sister…Why not her?
There’s no discretion to whom you’ll mentally apply this one – from beloved female family members and friends to the woman with one too many packets of chips in her shopping trolley in front of you at the check out. Scrutinising what they did differently or what you did wrong is natural but unhelpful and once again comes back around to that same answer – its happened to you not her because its just the way it is.
A breast cancer diagnosis as a young woman brings with it an exciting range of traditionally taboo subjects that you may find yourself having to deal with. Whether it is coveting other womens’ cancer-free breasts, pining for motherhood, thoughts of giving up or fears of dying, you have a ‘new normal’ now, so be prepared to address these crazy situations.
THE BOOB OBSESSION
All this focus on boobs all things boob related sets off a chain of events that can find you unwittingly becoming a covert boob inspector. Not even your (female) specialist or oncologist are immune from this as your thoughts wander to the state of their boobs and indeed every other female that crosses your path.
Suddenly all the adverts in magazines and on TV are using boobs to sell their wares, (which if truth be told the majority of them are) and the inescapable pink ribbon of breast cancer sponsored products are all around you from washing up liquid to chocolate biscuits.
It’s a perfectly normal response to finding out your boob(s) are in fact ticking time-bombs and not the nice girls you once thought they were. It comes and goes throughout the journey with a definite peak around surgery-time when you know you soon have to adjust to an altered landscape when looking down.
Give yourself the same break you would a hormonal teenage boy – its normal, its not hurting anyone, they’re everywhere and they do occupy most of your waking thoughts – just try to be discrete!
I CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE
Somewhere in the midst of treatment (whatever that may entail) you’ll be tired, sore, emotionally exhausted and may even doubt the benefit of treatment versus the side-effects. Cue the feelings of not being able to cope or take any more that cancer has to throw at you.
Like the gift that keeps on giving – cancer can be a resistant opponent hence the brutal treatment it receives. Like Rocky Balboa you may be balding, puffy in the face, knackered after rounds in the ring with cancer and muttering incoherent things. Just know that somehow you’ll dig deep, maybe even shout the name of your beloved a la Rocky and eventually get back up to finish the job you started.
If not for yourself right now, you’ll do it for those around you.
IS THAT CANCER?
While it is indeed possible that your new headache may be a brain tumour, your new backache may be the signs of bone cancer or flushed scar may be a recurrence of breast cancer, you need to remember that its just as possible that it isn’t.
After a cancer diagnosis, it’s so hard to trust your body again (and who can blame you?) after that little army of rogue cells already managed to slip past your immune defences once. Your mind is well and truly on the cancer lookout and anything that fits the description will be up for scrutiny, compounding an already stressful situation.
Anything that persists (the advice is often a duration of 2 weeks or more) or worsens warrants attention and you should contact the triage nurse at your oncology department to discuss our symptoms and see if they need to see you in person. You can also head to your GP if you’re more comfortable with them – you’ll probably never see them as much in your life as you do after a cancer diagnosis, ironically it usually more for your worrying symptoms once treatment is over.
DEAL WITH IT…
Tips and tools for dealing with the barrage of emotions that a breast cancer diagnosis brings, and all the other crap that comes along with it…
TALK IT OUT
Talking about your feelings can be by far the best way to name and shame them into place. If you want to talk and those around you want to listen then get it all out as much and as often as you need to. People around you often don’t know what to say and find themselves rocked by your diagnosis. In talking about what’s happening for you, you’re giving them the opportunity to share their feelings and ask any questions at the same time as you getting some much needed earplay. Be aware that you may start to feel like a Mastermind contestant who’s specialist subject is ‘Breast Cancer’ but hey it’s a pretty big thing that’s happening in your life and you are the (albeit reluctant) expert.
Watch out if you find you’re starting to edit the content, get stuck ruminating, counsel others or if the subject matter becomes too uncomfortable to discuss – in these cases you may want to seek a referral to a counsellor where you can say what you really feel. You may also find comfort and inspiration in talking to any other cancer survivors (particularly breast cancer survivors) who have already walked the mile in your shoes and know the dark feelings that can accompany this life-threatening situation.
There’s a caution to looking online – while credible sites can provide you with great resources and information (like this one for instance) some of the information out there can be very frightening indeed and even outdated. It can also be very generalised, reliant upon statistics and in no way a true reflection of your own personal circumstances.
The best approach is to take your time and look at factual resources first, such as those given out by the Cancer Society, so you really learn about breast cancer and understand your predicament. Once you’ve got a good handle on just what’s going on, you are able to sift through the minefield of information out there and discern what’s appropriate for you.
That being said, the support from online forums on many breast cancer sites and blogs can be an amazing place of comfort, camaraderie and shared experience. Knowing you aren’t alone in this nightmare, having someone who never gets tired of talking about the big C and is also waking at 4am with premature menopausal sweats is invaluable. As the saying goes…misery loves company!
JOURNALING & BLOGGING
If you’re not one for talking things over, you may find it helpful to write things down instead. Even if you just write swearwords all over the pages of your journal at first it’s a start. You don’t have to make it public or ever read it again if you don’t want to – its more about the vehicle than the message.
Blogging about your experience serves to get things out of your system, communicate with those in your sphere as well as possibly share your journey with other young women in the same boat. Like journaling, the act of writing about your feelings is cathartic but bear in mind you may have to up the ante on the content – no-one will follow long-term if all you do is write swearwords!
If you feel you don’t want to talk to those close to you or have feelings that are just too frightening to share with those close to home, you may find that you benefit from seeing a professional counsellor.
The best place to start is by asking your GP for a referral as they usually have an array of counsellors that they work with and can send you to the one who will be the best fit for you on this journey. The Cancer Society can also provide details of any counselling services that they provide or recommend in your area.
Costs of counselling can be covered by WINZ or the Cancer Society in some cases – you can find their details in the Little Pink Book to find out if you are eligible.
Depending upon where you live, there may well be a support group for you to meet up face-to-face with other breast cancer patients, survivors and even previvors (BRCA gene positive women who’ve had prophylactic surgery in bid to outsmart the big C). The age range can be a sticking point (where you’re the one sticking out as a shiny young thing) so you may prefer to attend a general young persons group. They usually take place at a café or somewhere similar and are pretty informal. Like the online forums they provide a safe place to meet others on the same sticky wicket and can help deal to the feelings of isolation that cancer can bring. Your local branch of the Cancer Society are a great starting point to provide you with details of groups that they run in your area