“If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm.” ~Frank Lane
One minute your life is just humming along, and out of nowhere you’re hit with a devastating diagnosis. Cancer.
Believe me, I know what it’s like to get the news you have cancer and to live with the trauma that follows, because I’m not only a licensed psychotherapist, I’ve been treated for both breast cancer and leukemia.
I know how that diagnosis changes everything. I know how the world around you can still look the same, but suddenly you feel like a stranger in your own life.
You have trouble getting up in the morning. You have trouble getting to sleep. When you finally get to sleep you’re jolted awake by nightmares. Or maybe you sleep all the time. You can’t eat, or you can’t stop eating.
You’re drinking too much. You’re smoking too much. You’re terrified, exhausted, and have no idea how you’re going to get through the next few hours, let alone the days, or weeks ahead.
When I was going through chemo for breast cancer, I read all the books about surviving cancer I could get my hands on. I talked to my oncologist and to other women going through the same thing, trying to find the way to “do cancer right.”
I worried myself sick that I would get things wrong, until a friend said, “You know, everybody does things differently. Just find what works for you, and do that.” Those words changed everything for me.
I realized there wasn’t “a right way” to do cancer. There was just the way that worked best for me.
I believe it’s the same for you. No matter what kind of diagnosis you’re facing, it’s up to you to find what works for you and do that.
To get you through those tough first days, I’m offering you some thoughts and techniques that worked for me. I hope some of them will work for you, too.
Be Gentle With Yourself
When you’re going through a tough time, you may not have the time or energy keep up your usual self-care routine. So, why not let the big things go and start looking for little things you can do instead?
If you can’t get to the gym, go out for a ten-minute walk at lunch. If you don’t have time to cook a nutritious dinner, add a salad or vegetable to your take-out order.
Instead of trying to check things off your to-do list, think of ways to make life easier for yourself. If you don’t have time to do something yourself, hire someone, or ask for help.
Focus on what’s best for you, and that means speaking up for yourself. If you don’t have the time or energy to do something, say “no,” and don’t feel guilty about it.
Find the Joy
Be sure to do something you love every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes: sit on a beach, gaze at the stars, read a book, go for a walk, watch a funny You Tube video or TV show. Smile when you can and laugh as often as possible, because laughter connects you with the world in a way that eases anxiety and heals the heart.
Affirm Courage, Love, and Safety
What you say to yourself matters. And when you’re going through a tough time, positive self-talk can make a real difference in how you think and feel.
When I was struggling to find even one positive thought, I found it really helpful to focus on powerful affirmations instead. So, if you find yourself spiraling downward into the depths of negativity, try the following process to break that cycle.
Begin by saying your name out loud. Then remind yourself that you’re safe and secure in the moment. Let that feeling soak all the way in to your belly and your bones.
Once you feel safe, affirm:
“I have the spirit, will, and courage to meet any challenge ahead.”
“I can handle anything, one step at a time.”
“I am always surrounded and protected by light and love.”
“I speak to myself with loving kindness. I treat myself with loving kindness. I care for myself with loving kindness.”
“I am always moving in a positive direction toward a positive future.”
“I am safe.”
End by promising you will always treasure yourself and honor your beautiful spirit. Affirm courage, love, and safety.
Experts recommend eating well, and eliminating sugary and processed foods, alcohol, and caffeine when you’re under stress.
But maybe you’re having trouble eating anything at all. Or maybe you’re living on chicken noodle soup, pretzels, and chocolate doughnuts.
Please, give yourself a break. When you’re going through a traumatic experience it’s no time to be following a strict diet or to beat yourself for not eating a balanced diet. Instead, focus on making healthy food choices when you can, and letting go of judgment when you can’t.
If you find you’re having trouble eating, choose foods you can tolerate and enjoy smaller portions more often through the day.
If you’re over eating, try eating fruits and vegetables first. Commit to eating only when you’re sitting down. Focus on eating more slowly.
But if you’ve tried everything you can think of and are still struggling with food, please let your health care provider know what ‘s going on. They’re there to give you support and help in all aspects of your health care.
A good night’s sleep is an important part of healing your body, mind, and spirit, but if you’re struggling to get enough sleep there are a number of things you can do.
Try going to bed an hour earlier each night. The extra time in bed can give your body some needed rest.
Once you’re in bed, do your best to keep your focus off your troubles. Relive happy memories, or imagine yourself vacationing in a place where you can relax and enjoy.
If you haven’t fallen asleep after twenty minutes, get up and do something calming. Write in your journal, do a crossword puzzle, or sip a cup of herbal tea.
Finally, if you aren’t able to get enough sleep at night, take a nap during the day. Make it a non-negotiable part of your daily schedule. If time is an issue, try scheduling all your activities and responsibilities before lunch, leaving your afternoon for napping or resting.
It’s important not to go through this alone. And asking for help is a sign of strength and courage, not weakness.
When things get rough, call a friend or a family member and ask for support and help.
If you’re completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn, consider getting some professional help. Talking to a mental health provider can give you new insight, hope, and bring you peace.
Finally, you may also want to consider working with a support group. There’s great power in knowing you’re not the only one suffering this kind of challenge. There are people who are in the same boat and know exactly how you feel. They may be able to offer comfort and advice in the days ahead.
Giving is another powerful way to connect with the people around you. It reminds you of the gifts you still have, and that you’re not the only one going through a tough time.
There are lots of ways to lend a hand. Offer to drive a neighbor to a medical appointment. Walk the dogs at your local animal shelter. Write a check to your favorite charity or drop a few coins in the donation can as you pass by. Send a card or text to a friend to help them through the day.
If you’d like to make a longer term commitment, volunteer at your local library, food bank, or senior center.
And if you think you don’t have any energy or time or left to give, give a compliment. Share a smile or a kind word. You never know how that one small gift could change a life.
Give Yourself a Healing Hug
Hugging is a way to give yourself comfort and peace in the middle of any storm. Acupressure is a powerful way to bring ease to both body and spirit.
I combine both techniques in what I call a healing hug, and highly recommend it to ease fear and panic that can be a part of these tough days.
Begin by crossing your arms over your chest. There are two important acupressure points located in the soft tissue just under your collarbones called the “letting go” points.
Chances are that by crossing your arms, your fingertips have landed on those “letting go” points. Take a moment and feel around until you find the spots, about two inches above your armpit crease and an inch inward.
Once you’re found the points, pull your arms close around you in a comforting, self-hug, and gently massage those “letting go” points with your fingertips. Continue to breathe, noticing on each exhale how the tension and fear flow down your spine and out of your body.
No matter how difficult or scary your diagnosis, treating yourself with love and kindness will make the journey through the those first tough days easier, and give you a head start on enjoying the sunshine waiting for you on the other side.
About Wendy Leeds
Wendy Leeds is a psychotherapist with both a professional and a personal interest in helping women deal with their anxiety. As a three-time cancer survivor, she is an expert on what it’s like to live with anxiety and how to ease it. Her book, Calm & Sense: A Woman's Guide to Living Anxiety-Free, is available on Amazon, B&N and in fine bookstores everywhere. You can hear her podcast Anxiety Connection on all podcast platforms and find her on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
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