Over the years, I’ve seen an incredibly diverse collection of issues and problems of living that my clients encounter daily. We live in a broken world and the amount of pain that people experience is truly staggering at times. Divorce, the loss of a job, the betrayal of a lover, the list of things that cause significant pain in our life is almost endless. But of all the painful experiences that my patients have presented, the diagnosis of cancer has always struck me as one of the most disorienting processes a person can go through. In addition to the physical toll that the body takes during a fight with cancer, the emotional shock and awe of the diagnosis is sometimes the most difficult part for patients to respond to. As I’ve worked with these patients over the years, I’ve noticed some themes in their emotional experience that seem to transcend the type of cancer a person is dealing with or the specific stage of the disease they might be experiencing. Understanding the path that will help a person cope emotionally with the challenges of a cancer diagnosis is perhaps one of the most important components of the entire healing process. Although cancer brings an incomprehensible number of unique challenges to both the person who received a diagnosis and their loved ones, I would offer the following strategies to help patients and their families develop a plan to respond to the emotional challenges of the diagnosis.
1. Look for meaning
Here’s the bottom line: a cancer diagnosis demands that we respond to the brokenness and suffering in some way. Intuitively, almost everyone who is diagnosed is going to strive to get as much relief from the physical suffering as possible. That’s a given. Beyond that, some of us feel that our only option is to simply endure the diagnosis while others will enter emotional denial. I’ve seen many patients respond with tremendous fortitude and strength of character and see the diagnosis as an opportunity to bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit. Others rally against it with rage and repeat the mantra “Screw Cancer” with incredible passion.
While none of these responses are invalid, they are incomplete because cancer draws us to confront realities and questions that cause us to step back from our lives and reflect on the meaning and implications of the illness. When I talk about the ‘meaning’ of an experience, I am talking about its relationship or connection to something larger or beyond the experience itself. To navigate the emotional complexities of cancer, we must understand how it relates to some larger reality or purpose that we find in this life. Many people feel that their lives are meaningful because of the contribution they make to the lives of others. Others find meaning in their connection to God or a higher power. Ultimately, I can’t give you a cookie cutter answer to the question of the meaning of a cancer diagnosis in your life or in the life of your loved one. I can however tell you that navigating the emotions created by the diagnosis is ultimately contingent upon finding personal meaning in the suffering, especially if the discovery of meaning brings about personal changes and growth like acceptance or humility.
2. Normalize “Why me?”
Everyone who receives a cancer diagnosis asks the question “why me?” at some point in the process. In the counseling office I almost always hear a question that sounds like this: “Why, out of all the people in the world, did I have to be the one to deal with this cancer?” People of faith often do not understand how a loving God could allow cancer to happen to a good person. “There must be some reason for it,” they say. It is not uncommon for some of my clients to even wonder whether the illness is a punishment by God for “sins” or “failings” that they have committed years ago. People who are not particularly religious aren’t immune from unhealthy answers to the “Why me?” question. They sometimes feel a sense of self-contempt or guilt about their cancer based on personal choices they have made in the past like smoking or chronic stress. It didn’t take long working with clients with cancer to recognize that faith or not, the “Why Me?” question was an unavoidable part of the process.
Know this: “Why me?” is really not so much a question requiring an answer as it is a cry of emotional and spiritual pain. Cute answers that rely on simplistic theological formulas are pointless. Translation: don’t tell people it’s God’s will that cancer happened. Instead, our job is to honor the natural emotional anguish and fear behind this question and to refocus on the comfort and reassurance that will come as we understand more about the meaning we are assigning to the cancer in the context of our larger life.
3. Search for healing as much as you search for a cure
We have already established that it is natural to try to minimize the physical effects of cancer in the body. Everyone with cancer is fighting to get that clean bill of health. To be cured. But it’s important to remember that the mind and body are inextricably connected. Sometimes, even when physical treatment will likely not end in a cure, the healing of soul or spirit can provide a deep and sustaining comfort in the fight against cancer. The life-threatening nature of the diagnosis can create what some call a “soul sickness”. When this happens, our fear leverages the realities of cancer against us and creates feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and demoralization. If we don’t attend to these emotions, we can stay sick emotionally even if we have a successful physical treatment for cancer. The path through this soul sickness is to focus on the beauty of the life we have already lived and on the moments we have left to take this beauty in. If we let it, cancer can have a way of capturing our attention, deepening our reflection on what’s important, and causing us to live with more awareness of our values and ultimate priorities. When we focus on these priorities, we find the hope we need to move forward, the fortitude to remember what we are fighting for and regardless of the outcome of our cancer treatments, we find true healing.