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Cancer is as Much an Emotional Journey as it is a Physical One
Jill Tonks is a qualified Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapist and solution focused coach and trainer. Ten years ago she went through her own cancer journey and really struggled to find the help she needed. As a result, she decided then to specialise in cancer coaching in her private practice.
Cancer is as Much an Emotional Journey as it is a Physical One
Most people think that cancer is just a physical journey- it most definitely is and depending on the nature of the cancer you’ve been diagnosed with, this journey will be very different for everyone. However, what often gets overlooked is the life changing emotional journey where cancer forces us to face one of the most profound fears- the fear of dying and not living the life we had mapped out. In this article, I explore the power of acceptance- a small word and yet a profoundly difficult challenge for most people to achieve.
Joan came to the door of my clinic on crutches- she was really struggling; she was in pain. She looked beaten. ‘I’m so sorry for being so useless’ was her opening line as I met her at the door, as she slowly managed to move. She was diagnosed with bone cancer seven years ago and was told she had six years to live.
She sat opposite me in my coaching room and started swearing, the flood gates opened:
“This f***ing cancer’ she said, ‘ I’m determined to beat it and I need your help’.
She continued. ‘I’ve got everything I want in my life. A great family, three homes, one in the UK, one in Italy and one in South America. I’ve fought really hard for all my success in my life, and yet I’ve got nothing’. ‘Look at the f***ing state of me’.
She continued. ‘My body is useless, I’m drugged up to the eyeballs to help me cope with the pain, and I’m finding it more and more difficult to do anything’. Her voice was getting louder. ‘Everyone thinks I’m doing so well, tells me I’m so strong. No one knows how hard this is, no one’. The rage began to leak from her eyes…… she paused, her voice wobbled, ‘No one cares’.
She sighed holding back the surge of emotion. ‘I should be enjoying the time I’ve got left, and every f***ing morning I wake up feeling like I’m in a coffin’. The tears rolled; they were unstoppable now. ‘ I love my family to bits. I’ve got a wonderful husband, two grown up kids and three grandchildren. I am ashamed of myself, and I don’t want them to see me like this. What is the point?’
Joan was in her 60’s with a very successful career behind her. She had everything; the family she had always wanted, the successful business, the homes abroad and the wealth that she had built up through her very successful property business. Her favourite was her beautiful villa in the South of Italy, her ‘dream come true house’.
‘However,’ she said, ‘that house means nothing’. She had just been there on holiday with her family. ‘I’ve never felt so lonely in my beautiful house. Look at me, I could barely f***ing walk to the end of the drive’. “I was in the most beautiful place in the world; my place that I’ve worked so hard for, and I hated every single moment.”
I let Joan talk and release all that pent up rage, sadness, fear, guilt, and shame. She had been sat on this for a long time now. I waited, ‘So what do you want from our time together? I said. She replied, ‘I want to find a way to live the life I’ve got left.’
‘So how would you like to be living the life you’ve got left?’ I asked her. ‘I’d be enjoying every moment there was in every way’. ‘If you were to live that life you’ve got left enjoying every moment in every way, what needs to happen?’ I asked.
A long pause. ‘I don’t know’. She replied, the penny was dropping, her strategy for life was to fight for everything. Most times she had won. This was the key to her success, in her mind.
‘If you were to know…what do you suppose would need to happen?’ Another pause, longer than the last one.
“I’m sick of fighting, I can’t do this anymore.” she continued.
‘What would you like to do instead?’ I nudged gently.
‘I just don’t know’, she continued.
‘If you were to know…?’ I held the pause.
She spoke one word, ‘A…a…accept’. The word stumbled out of her mouth.
‘Accept what?’ I nudged again. ‘I can’t fight this anymore’, she said. Her body language changed; her body moved down into the chair. ‘
‘F***, F***, F***…’ these were different ‘F***s’. These were ‘F***s’ of realisation.
‘I don’t know what else to do’ she went on. I gave her a moment.
‘You are fighting aren’t you?’ I said. She nodded. ‘Who are you fighting?’ I asked. A long pause, then she said quietly. ‘I don’t know’. ‘Take a guess’, I said. ‘I’m fighting myself aren’t I?’ said Joan.
‘What would you rather do instead?’ I asked. We were getting closer.
‘Accept that I am where I am…but then I’m giving in to this f***ing disease.’
Joan had ‘fought’ all her life. The battle metaphor had been so useful to her, and she had built a successful career from it. For her cancer, this metaphor was not working for her anymore, in fact she was running herself into the ground. This fight was exhausting her. As Joan came to realise, when we ‘battle’ cancer, there is only one opponent, and it is ourself. This fight is exhausting, physically, mentally, emotionally, and at every level in the mind and body. It has no end and there is no winner.
So many charities use this metaphor. Many people living with cancer are ‘fighting the fight of their lives’. For so many people I have met though, this metaphor is really unhelpful. Initially fighting gives the va va voom that we need to summon up the energy to keep going but, after a while, when all your energy and head space is tied up with an internal battle; it can be exhausting. At the very time when you need all your resources to manage the trauma of a diagnosis, to manage the treatment and its effects, to find a way to get up in the morning and get through every day, you tool up to fight, and the enemy is yourself. The battle metaphor works exceptionally well for fundraising because the rest of the world wants to fight cancer because the disease is so scary, we see it as a secret enemy that needs to be conquered and fighting it makes the world feel better. For Joan, the fight for her life was shortening her life; she was in denial. She was frightened that if she did not win by default she would lose and then cancer would finally ‘get’ her. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Your journey through cancer begins from where you are not where you’d prefer to be.
Acceptance is a very important first step in managing cancer. Of course, consciously, people accept at a head level that they’ve got cancer. Of course they accept that it takes time to get treatment, it takes time to work out if the treatment has been effective. Yet, so often, unconsciously, they hate the cancer; they hate themselves for having it, they hate the powerful, negative effect it has had on them, making them weak and vulnerable and hate the dramatic impact it has had on the people they love. Cancer has come from your body and so by default, whether you realise it or not, if you hate it, then you are hating yourself.
Joan felt so angry, ‘Why Me?’, ‘How come I’ve got this disease?’, ‘Why have we been cursed with this as a family?’ This is a thankless search with no satisfactory or useful answers. Cancer is a form of Russian roulette- the healthiest of people get it and the unhealthiest do not- it makes no sense whatsoever and if you continue to search for reasons, you will dig yourself a bottomless pit of negative emotions.
Joan felt so sad,’ My life, as I know it, is over’. A deep sense of loss was present, of being robbed of something that she took for granted- a long and healthy life. The ripple effect of the sadness was the loss of all the things she might miss, the things she had anticipated, those important events such as seeing her children grow old or having grandchildren.
Joan felt so guilty – ‘It’s my fault’. She was fearful of what other people will think of her. ‘Cancer does not happen to people like me’ is implicit in her conversations. Cancer makes her feel like a victim with no one to blame, so the finger of responsibility turned in on herself again.
Joan felt shame; ‘I do not want anyone to see me like this, so helpless, so hopeless’ so she stopped connecting with people. ‘Everyone keeps asking me how I am- is this all I am, this cancer?’. Even if she didn’t define herself by her cancer, others did. Everyone kept asking her how she was; she couldn’t bear it. She was too proud, and so she disconnected even more and just got lonelier. She was keeping things now from her husband, she was frightened he would leave her if she became too weak or feeble. He liked a strong woman, she believed.
Joan was so frightened beneath all the bluster and swearing. Fear was the stalker that lurked around every corner for her. Every hospital appointment, every scan was hugely stressful. Every twinge, every ache, every pain was the cancer spreading. Cancer ambushed her, day in, day out.
Once Joan began to accept where she was now, how she was, her strengths and her limitations, she was able channel all the energy tied up in her cancer battle differently so she could live her life with cancer. Joan’s journey was not an easy one with a life limiting cancer, but she made it much easier by living from where she was rather than where she would prefer to be.
Shona was in her forties and had recently had throat cancer. She had had several operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The trauma of surgery now meant she could not swallow and had to be fed through a pipe and a machine inserted directly into her stomach. She hated food. Her mum died on the day she was diagnosed, and Shona came to see me with a deep sense of hopelessness and helplessness. She had had a great life with her family and grown-up children and a career as a teacher. She was spending hours lying at home on the sofa, feeling weak, tired, lethargic, and depressed. She was beginning to wonder what was the point of living in this way. She was at an all time low.
When she first came to see me, she had her things in her special, homemade carrier bag, which her teenage daughter had made for her with positive affirmations and messages on it. She was ashamed – her daughter was not meant to be giving her advice, it should be the other way round. That was just another stick to beat herself up with. She knew her daughter meant well but this was not how it should be.’ I am the parent, she is the child; I support her, she is not meant to support me.’
We talked about acceptance a lot. Shona could not abide the word. ‘Why would I want to accept a disease that has ruined my life?’ She had tied herself in a knot and all she wanted was to get back to normal.
Normal does not exist after cancer, because that usually means a desire to rewind time which is not possible. We have many gifts as human beings but time travel is not one of them. Trying to rewind to a time before cancer happened, just creates another loop of self bullying as the brain tries to achieve the impossible of the many ‘If only…’ conversations in the mind. ‘If only I’d eaten better, exercised more, was less stressed in my job, not smoked as a teenager…’. The list is endless, and the exercise is fruitless.
So, what do I mean by acceptance? The journey through cancer starts with accepting where you are on any given moment of any given day. Coming to terms with the tsunami of physical and emotional changes is not always easy, but it is always possible. There’s a saying -‘whatever we resist, persists’. This is so true when cancer blights your life. You cannot ignore it or avoid it. These feelings cannot be boxed off or buried, they are far too big for that. They take you hostage unexpectedly every time your survival brain is reminded that cancer can kill you. They stalk you and pounce when you least expect it and if you do not work with them, they can linger for years in ways that can truly limit your life.
How does acceptance help?
What if you were just to acknowledge any emotion or thought or feeling or sensation that cancer brings to you? What if you were just to say to yourself that, whatever your experience, it is a normal response to an abnormal event in your life? What if you were to accept that your mind and body are in the midst of a traumatic journey and however you respond is completely understandable?
When you begin to have a very different conversation with yourself from a place of acceptance, kindness and compassion, it begins to diffuse all the energy tied up in the battle with negative thoughts and feelings. This then creates some mental space for you to have some different conversations with yourself which then means you can allow yourself to come to terms with where you are. From here you can begin to navigate the journey ahead differently.
This doesn’t mean that you give in; it just means that you can begin to find a way forward from where you actually are rather than from where you’d like to be or where you were before cancer hijacked your life. When you find your foothold in the present moment through acceptance, then you can begin to increasingly shape your reality as it is.
I’ve worked with so many people through their cancer, most have lived, a few have not. Using the Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapy approach, enables individuals to access again all the skills and qualities they already have, to manage their journey and the acute uncertainty ahead. We are extremely capable as human beings, but those strong emotions can create feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, if we let them. Once individuals call a truce with themselves through acceptance, that ends the counterproductive internal battle. It is then possible to work with and through these strong negative emotions that can help you rediscover with a laser like clarity what and who is important in your life. This can then serve as a powerful road map for how to life the best life that is possible with your cancer.
Cancer is one of the biggest challenges that any of us will ever face. Working with and through your emotions does not always make this journey easy, but it does always make it possible.
‘The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.’ Joseph Campbell
Summary of Key Points
- Acceptance doesn’t mean you are surrendering to cancer or giving in, it just means you can begin to find a way to live again from where you are right now rather than fighting the reality of the circumstances you find yourself in.
- Acceptance does mean that whatever you feel is OK, it’s a normal response to a life-threatening sometimes life limiting disease.
- The problem holds the solution, when we lean into our vulnerability through acceptance, it holds the key to change happening.