I remember when I found out that I had cancer, I was about 15 minutes from seeing a patient in my outpatient clinic. To my surprise, even though I am a professional and I had been dealing with these near scares for over 15 years, my world stopped right away. I was paralyzed for a few minutes, trying to understand what had just happened. Then I got a bit scared and started crying. After a few minutes of those intense emotions, I called my husband who had trouble making out my words since I could only utter, “I have cancer”. Then I called the nurse who supports my clinic who came to console me, gave me tissues, and took me to start seeing patients. Just as instantly as my emotions appeared, they dissipated and I switched into my professional mode – cool, calm, collected, and focused on my patients.
Working allowed me to ‘forget’ about it for a bit, but when I came home I went straight into my pajamas and covered myself under my blankets and just lay there. I didn’t want to speak with anyone, I just wanted to be alone. I was still paralyzed, some of my patients call it “shut down”. The next morning when I woke up, my fighter instinct had kicked in. I was ready to tackle this health issue like it was a checkbox on my to-do list, which it was, although its impact on every aspect of my (and my loved ones’) life was major and lasting.
When you’re first diagnosed, it seems like you go into automatic pilot mode, keeping your eye on the ball and reprioritizing your work and life to make time and preserve energy for performing tests, seeing doctors, and undergoing treatments. You may not understand or tolerate these treatments well, but you accept them because you trust your providers and you want to throw anything you can at your illness so it goes away and you can resume living your life happily ever after, as if the scary cancer never happened.
But it did happen. And it will change you. You cannot go back, you cannot unsee or unknow it. It forces you “to find the new you‘….
Everyone reacts differently. Some may get sad, while others get angry, quiet, or shut-down. Some react a little, some a lot. Some react instantly, while others are delayed. Some reactions may last, while some are short-lived or intermittent. Even not having a reaction is a reaction.
I often wonder, “Why is a cancer diagnosis so scary and overwhelming?” Other non-cancer diagnoses/diseases, such as heart attack or stroke, may have similar associated life expectancies, but they don’t usually trigger the same intense emotions. So what is so special about cancer? I have been trying to figure this one out, and I’m not sure I have the answer, but it may have something to do with the notion that cancer behaves unpredictably. Also, cancer and its treatment can wreak havoc on one’s body and mind. Patients may feel especially fearful if they have experienced horror stories from movies or family members who went through cancer in the days when our supportive therapies were not as well-developed as they are now.
When an experience (or the threat of an experience), such as physical/sexual abuse or serving in a war, becomes too overwhelming for your body, mind, and spirit to handle, and/or you do not have adequate emotional support, it can become a traumatizing experience. Cancer can be a traumatizing experience, too. The word itself can trigger scary associations, resulting in it being referred to as the “C-Word”.
The tricky part of having been through a traumatizing experience is that it may have primed you to (over)react easily to other triggers, retraumatizing you. This can manifest itself by keeping you always on the alert for when such a trigger may come around again or having anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, or trouble concentrating, If you think this may apply to you, please know that there is help for you. Allow yourself to speak about this with your loved ones or healthcare providers. You are not alone. There is no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed. Everyone has their breaking point. Like Mr. Rogers said, “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable”!
Learn and Think:
A book and documentary describe the phenomenal progress that has been made in the cancer field. Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.
Live and Feel:
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the movie about Mr. Rogers — is out.
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