In honor of breast cancer awareness month, I would like to focus on the grief process and resilience when faced with loss or trauma. Whether you are just receiving a diagnosis, are making difficult decisions about treatment, are amid treatment, are in relapse, or are a loved one supporting someone with cancer, you are likely experiencing an onslaught of challenging thoughts and feelings.
Cancer is accompanied by many losses. These might be tangible losses— perhaps you lose your hair, you undergo a mastectomy, or you must take a step back from your work and career. Cancer also brings about many intangible losses. You may feel you can no longer trust your body, or you feel disconnected from others. It is common to question your deepest held beliefs or feel like you just aren’t sure who you are anymore. Stability across life domains becomes destabilized.
When we are confronted with such losses, it is important that we take the time to stop, breathe, and allow ourselves to grieve. Grief may look many ways and be accompanied by a range of swiftly changing emotions—anger, sadness, envy, hopelessness, relief, guilt, shame—there is no one right way to grieve.
You may have heard there are five stages of grief. In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, described five popular stages of grief known as DABDA: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. What is often misunderstood about these stages is they are just common stages you may experience. It is possible you may experience all of these, some combination, none. Grief is highly idiosyncratic and disordered. It is often experienced in waves, and it is rarely ever linear, lockstep, or predictable.
Regulating these emotions using skills often taught by psychologists and other mental health professions is key to coping with these challenging emotions, making effective and adaptive decisions about your healthcare, and continuing to live your life as fully and meaningfully as possible.
If you or a loved one is coping with cancer, try our TAPER method to alleviate stress and refocus on the things that are most important to you.
When we are experiencing many different and competing emotions, it can be difficult to know exactly what we are feeling. It is common to try and avoid or suppress strong negative emotions. However, it is important to give yourself time to grieve and feel your pain. This allows the negative emotions to run their natural course. This also reduces their power over us and our decisions and their overall impact on our experience.
Acknowledging how our emotions show up for us also allows us to more effectively cope. Try getting into the habit of taking a minute or so to check in with yourself. Take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “what am I feeling?” Grief, anger, sadness? How does this show up in my body? For example, when we feel stressed or anxious, our brain triggers the release of many different chemicals that often result in inflammation and tension. If you can notice this tension, you can release this tension. Doing so sends a message to your brain to help regulate your emotional response.
The mind-body connection is strong and bi-directional. You can think of your physical health as body armor for negative emotions. When we are not making the healthiest decisions for ourselves physically, we are more vulnerable to negative emotions. Check in with yourself using the following:
Grief can often feel lonely or you may notice yourself wanting to isolate. It is important to notice when this is showing up for you. Getting support from others can be extremely validating and bolster our ability to maintain emotional and physical well-being. It can be helpful to be in the presence of others who have had similar experiences. Consider a local or online support group or speaking with a psychologist or counselor.
Realistic optimism, cultivating hope, practicing mindfulness, and creating meaning are four hallmarks of resilience. Take time to check in with yourself about the things that are most important to you. How can you remain connected to these things even in the face of loss?
Posttraumatic growth, or strength and meaning that comes about after a traumatic experience, is common after a battle with cancer. We are more attuned to what is important to us. Grief often presents us with the opportunity for a kind of healing and growth that helps us enrich our lives.
Sometimes we get hooked on thoughts and begin to spiral—either into the past, or into the future. Remaining present gives us space to refocus on our values and make choices accordingly. Mindfulness is attending to the present moment without judgement. When we recognize we are having a negative emotion or stressful thought and acknowledge they are neither good or bad, they just are, we reclaim our regulatory control over them. Feelings are not facts, and thoughts are just our minds chitter chatter.
The next time you are overwhelmed, try closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and imagine a stream. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it smell like? Now turn your attention to your thoughts, each time you have a thought, imagine placing it on a leaf that has fallen into the stream and watch it float away. Perhaps you think to yourself, “nothing will ever get better.” Notice how this thought just popped into your mind uninvited. It is just that, a thought. It is neither good or bad, true or false. Place it on a leaf and watch it float away.