(Published in the December 2013 edition of the Natural Health Magazine)
The power to take charge of cancer and your life
A cancer diagnosis throws us into a deep personal crisis. The impact is devastating on many levels: physically, psychologically, financially, socially, relationally and spiritually. We are frightened, angry, grieving, helpless and hopeless. Treatment is often hard and mostly focuses on eliminating the cancer.
The emotional impact of cancer can be severe, undermining treatment success, recovery and quality of life. Why? Because how we think and feel impacts our body – through the brain, central nervous, hormone and immune systems. Stress, depression, fear and unresolved conflicts can provoke changes in our mind, which cause changes in our bodies: elevated blood sugar, muscle tension, memory failure, artery hardening potentially culminating in serious disease like cancer. Equally, peace of mind can contribute to recovery and health.
What to do? While there are many proven ways to help us cope emotionally, the key question is: How, in this crisis, can you be motivated to take charge of your cancer and become an active participant in dealing with the emotional pain and our illness? How can you avoid being defeated and think ‘too little too late’?
The answer lies within each of us. We all know exceptional stories of human determination during times of war, natural disasters and personal tragedy. People manage to ignite their inner sense of hope, channel outrage and fear into a self-preservation instinct, which even cancer cannot take away – unless we let it.
We need to be aware, that being emotionally impacted by cancer is normal and does not make us a failure. Dealing with it is an important part of dealing with cancer. What can we expect?
Diagnosis: Once the initial shock has subsided, the enormity of the new reality sinks in: So many questions and so few answers; so much change and uncertainty; so much fear and so little hope. Some withdraw into denial, others pro-actively explore treatment options, and some passively follow medical advice.
Treatment: Mainstream and alternative recommendations may vary. The information can be complex and contradictory. How to know what is important? Who to trust? Will it work? More or less severe treatment side effects may occur including infections, hair loss, fatigue, sickness, insomnia, infertility, cognitive and memory impairment. How we feel about life and ourselves is changing rapidly. Fear, anger, frustration, loneliness and self-pity are common. Relationships start to be impacted, when those around us may feel helpless and frightened and may not give us the support we expect. With time we lose our old daily routines, sense of belonging and purpose.
Life with and beyond cancer: How to live one’s life after such traumatic experiences and with an uncertain future? There is no guarantee that the cancer will not come back. Anxiety after treatment is common, especially around the time of medical check ups. Some pick up where they left off. Others need a medical regime to help manage the disease and adjust to living with a terminal illness. Some turn the experience into a source of renewal and go on to living different lives.
Trusting in the power of our mind at such a traumatic time can take courage, dedication and patience. At its heart are four principles:
1. Do not be afraid of your feelings.
They are your response to the enormity of the news and a signal that extra care is essential. You are the best person for the job.
2. You are more than just a person with cancer.
Try not to lose sight of your identity, what you have achieved, your abilities, beliefs and aspirations.
3. Make peace with yourself.
Face up to your fear of dying and let it go. This provides substantial emotional relief, hope and motivation to live.
4, Accept your situation, but don’t give up.
Avoid getting stuck in the dark corridors of anger and grief, which can block the will to live.
We need to reaffirm these principles throughout our cancer journey, as they will provide a sense of purpose and hope.
In terms of practical self-help there is a lot to choose from including moderate exercise, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, listening to calming music, counselling and psychotherapy, alternative therapies, nutrition and Emotional Freedom Technique. All have a role to play in reducing anxiety, staying motivated and building up physical and mental strength.
Taking charge means you can make choices about your life, even with cancer and terminal illness. There will be moments of great doubt and pain along the way. However, your mind can empower you to carry on, as best as you can, however much time is left.
Practical advice for key milestones of the cancer journey:
This is shocking news, which you need time to digest. Speak with a trusted person or counsellor. Set up a support network.
Reach out for help. You are entitled to it. Many hospitals and cancer charities offer free complementary therapies, counselling, workshops, literature and free telephone help lines.
Make important decisions about your life before the start of treatment, because you might be too weak during treatment. If you work, consider stopping for the duration of your treatment and recuperation time. While some welcome the distraction and routine, this may come at a cost of unhealthy stress.
Keep treatment in perspective. It is intended to kill cancer cells. It is poisonous; your body and mind will be pushed to their limits. Stress and responsibilities not related to cancer treatment must be avoided.
Consider a holistic approach to extend care and treatment to all aspects of your being. Speak with qualified practitioners (including herbalists and nutritionists).
If you know you are going to lose your hair, consider cutting it yourself before-hand and investigate head covers that are comfortable, warm and look good.
If you require surgery, ask to see the ward in advance; take with you clothes and personal items that give comfort. Listen to relaxing music and meditate the night before, during the hours leading up to surgery and afterwards.
If you need chemotherapy, especially intravenous, and you live by yourself, ask a trusted person to stay with you at least 24 hours after each course. You may feel sick and experience heightened anxiety.
If you develop an aversion to treatments like intravenous chemotherapy, then try visualisation techniques. Imagine a clear and cleansing mountain spring, gently running through your body, washing away the cancer. Listen to nature music (eg running water) before and during the application of the drug.
Create a daily routine with gentle and regular physical and mental stimulation, fresh air and rest. Avoid lying in bed during the day. Rest on a day blanket instead. Take a walk (however long or short) 3 times a day. Do breathing exercises, meditate and other calming activities.
Express your emotions positively. Be creative. Keep a journal and take photos to document your journey. Consider counselling to help process difficult feelings and thoughts.
Life with and beyond cancer:
What do you want to do? You have the right to change your life-style and re-prioritise our life. Give yourself permission to step back from responsibilities, which no longer make a positive contribution to your life.
(C) Karin Sieger, September 2013