Life can have a funny way of sneaking up on you. Just when things feel like they are on track, something big comes out of the left field and leaves you reeling. This was my family’s experience in the summer of 2019. We had moved to the New Orleans area in the early fall of 2018. By the summer of 2019, our 3 kids were becoming better adjusted to their new schools, and my wife and I had found employment and a “groove” that we were comfortable with.
Then, on June 22, 2019, my wife Leah called me at work and, through tears, told me that she had received a diagnosis for breast cancer. On any given day, roughly 5,000 people are diagnosed with some form of cancer. For some it is caught in an advanced stage and options are limited. For those more fortunate, cancer is identified early enough to plan and implement treatment plans that can vary based on a multitude of variables, including the complex diversity in the biology of that patient’s cancer. Leah was one of the fortunate ones in the sense that her cancer was treatable, and her doctors moved quickly to implement her treatment plan.
What came next was a 13-month journey that required Leah to undergo 6 rounds of intensive chemotherapy. Each successive round did its job of shrinking her tumor and preventing spread to her lymph nodes, while paradoxically leaving Leah feeling more exhausted, run-down, and unable to function in her normally energetic and active way. Following chemotherapy was surgery, then radiation therapy and continued “maintenance” chemotherapy, and a second surgery.
Mental Needs Along With The Physical
The physical challenges of diagnosis and treatment of cancer is only half the story.
The mental health and emotional impacts are probably assumed, but not given the same amount of attention as the physical impact. Cancer survivors used words like “frozen”, “shell-shocked”, “stunned”, and “afraid” when describing the moment they received their diagnosis. Later in the process, emotions like anger, exhaustion, being overwhelmed, alienation, and heartbreak can emerge. Not only can the cancer be destructive, but many of the treatments can have both short and long-term physical effects including traumatic changes to the body. Some survivors have expressed feeling “broken” or “less than” as a result of their experiences. Not everyone’s journey is the same, however, and other survivors reported feeling elation and peace at the completion of treatment.
In addition, these impacts are not only experienced by the person with cancer but also their caregiver(s) and those within their immediate orbit. Dealing with cancer can add an enormous strain on a relationship as well as shine a bright light on existing issues, bringing to the forefront problems that had previously been ignored or avoided. For couples that are already struggling, a cancer diagnosis could spell the end of the relationship.
So what are some ways a person who has either just received a diagnosis of cancer, is currently battling cancer, or has completed treatment and is currently in remission can manage this emotional strain?
- Find and join a support group – Support groups are a great way to meet and befriend others going through a similar struggle. Group members benefit from socialization as well as feeling understood and less alone. Some even provide opportunities for activity outside of sitting in a circle and talking.
- Individual counseling – Whether it’s learning skills or having a place to process your emotions, individual counseling can be a helpful and rewarding experience
- Couples counseling – Develop skills to communicate your own emotional experience as well as understand your partner’s experience. A strong partnership can make the journey less daunting.