Hello, dear souls. I’m glad you’re here and hoping you’ll find refuge and a moment to breathe and treat yourself kindly. I think by this point we’re all aware that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There are pink ribbons everywhere and while being aware that Breast Cancer is serious health concern (it’s estimated that over 270,000 women and almost 3,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019), a lot of efforts feel too sterile for the 3.5 million survivors of breast cancer living in the United States.
The Big C
When my first step-mother had skin cancer, I remember my father sitting me down and saying we needed to talk about “the ‘c’ word”. I was afraid I had used a swear word in front of him but he was trying to very gently talk about a disease without scaring me. I only share this because we need to realize that cancer is so serious! My dad (a pretty tough guy, actually) couldn’t even bring himself to use the word. Pink ribbons and sports jerseys don’t quite capture the terror of learning that you have a disease that is fatal for so many people. We try to make breast cancer a little more palatable with a huge pink campaign but that’s not always helpful. If you’re a survivor and love the pink ribbons and events in October then I’m grateful that they’re out there. But for many of the people I know, it feels a lot like missing the point.
Cancer is Ugly
I’m truly honored to work with survivors and those battling cancer. As medical providers, friends, and family, it’s important not to make assumptions about what it’s like to live with cancer.
Cancer is ugly and awful and we, as humans, often try to ignore the ugly and awful. I see survivors struggling with well-meaning loved ones quickly reminding them of all the things they should be thankful for when they’re complaining about symptoms. Y’all…it is A-OK to vent. Cancer sucks. Yes, we can be thankful for modern medicine and angry that chemotherapy makes us lose our hair and our bones ache all at the same time. Friends do the same thing to caregivers. They’re often quick to try to skip past the complaints of the caregiver. Again, this is all well-meaning!
Let’s say I wasn’t a therapist and didn’t put a huge value on people needing space to feel their feelings. Let’s say in this reality, my dad was losing his spouse to slow-moving cancer that took over his partner’s independence, logical thinking, and even personality at times. If I wasn’t mentally prepared to hear his hurt and let it be, I imagine I’d be pretty quick to tell him something from my own life (interrupting his hurt) or try to find a silver lining for him. But that can easily come off as dismissive and uncaring. It would still all be because I care about him and don’t want him to hurt (kind of like if I don’t see him hurt, he won’t hurt as much?) but it doesn’t help him feel heard.
So some tips for living with cancer, having had cancer (if you’re in remission- yay! But that can cause us to fear relapse- I see you and I’m here if you need me), or loving someone with cancer:
- FIND SUPPORT. I never use all capitals. I don’t like yelling at people; it’s not who I am. But seriously, this one is so important. Find groups online or attend groups in person. It doesn’t matter if you’re a caregiver, in your battle or in recovery. The only piece to be aware of is that sometimes your group members will have bad news.
- Balance how much you research. This one is hard. When we know how to use google, we can totally flood ourselves with information. While it’s important to be an informed part of your care (or your loved one’s care), it’s all too easy to end up down-the-rabbit-hole and up until 4:00am reading about how this rare Indian fruit can shrink cancer cells. Find a doctor you can trust and have them help you sort out what’s worth reading and what’s not. If they’re a good doctor, they’re staying up-to-date on current research. Learning to let go is such an important skill. Does knowing all of the nitty gritty details of recurrence rates help you? Does reading horror stories about your medication help you? There are plenty out there but remember that people are quick to review anything they had a bad experience with but slower to leave reviews for things that helped them. Find a doctor you can trust to help you balance the pros and cons of treatment options.
- Ask questions. Keep notes of questions that come up and ask them when you have doctor’s appointments. Mayo Clinic has a fantastic list of questions if you’re not sure what to ask. You can find that list here: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/cancer-diagnosis/art-20044544
- Stop “shoulding” on yourself. My sister-in-law is a breast cancer survivor and she handled her diagnosis and treatment with so much grace that I spent most of her battle with cancer in total awe of her. Not everyone has this presence of mind. I see a lot of people who expect a lot of themselves during and/or after treatment. Whether their the one with cancer or the one caregiving, they expect themselves to be very much as they were before. But they’ve got all new stressors, symptoms, and schedules weighing on their resources.
- Check your thoughts and see a therapist. Do your best not to fall into the “If I need help, I’m a terrible person” trap. Try not to stew on “what would my loved ones do without me?!” Have some conversations about that if it would help. Try to stay hopeful. Lastly, a therapist can be helpful in coping with both symptoms, caretaking, and surviving with fear of a recurrence.
- Hold space for emotions. Everything you do in relation to cancer can be emotional. My second step-mom had lung cancer and was the “tough broad” 99% of the time and treated her cancer like a minor inconvenience for as long as she could. But when she needed to get the tattoo mark for her radiation, she broke down and cried. Ya’ll…that is not the first tattoo she wanted. You might also do really really hard things like planning end of life care or finances. Allow yourself to feel the feelings. It’s OK. Reach out for support as you’re ready or give friends and family some clues about when you need to be checked in on (“hey, I’ve got chemotherapy on Thursday and I know I’ll be in bed sleeping most of that day but can you call me Friday just to see how I’m doing?).
- Expect physical changes. If you have to do chemotherapy or radiation, chances are it will cause physical changes. Losing your hair in chemo can hurt (shaving it off helps stop the pain), memory can feel non-existent with chemotherapy, and fatigue is super common. Try not to terrify yourself about these symptoms but knowing that they might happen helps you not to be blindsided. And be flexible about your timelines. Just because your doctor says most people are back to work within a certain time frame doesn’t mean you will be. That’s the reason they say “most people” and not “all people”. Challenge yourself (like you need another challenge, right?) to not compare yourself to others’ recovery stories. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to lose functioning (like memory) let alone to not get it back by the time you thought you would but everyone is so different in how their bodies respond to illness and to medications.
- This one’s a bit different. One of the things that I’ve seen from survivors is that their priorities change and that sometimes ruffles feathers. Cancer can give us a sharp reminder that life is short. You might well be less willing to deal with people’s “garbage” now that you know how precious life is. You’re not alone in that and you’re not wrong for it. Just know that.
Get your screenings if you’re not living with cancer and no matter how cancer affects you, take care of yourself. Be well, friends, and work to be understanding of each other. If you want to connect with a therapist at Perspectives Therapy Services, reach out.
Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.