Saturday 13 January 2018

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Living Well after Breast Cancer Diagnosis

"The legacy of a breast cancer diagnosis is a desire for authenticity. We want to be free to be ourselves."

In our first weekly discussion of 2018, we explored the challenges of living well after a diagnosis with primary or secondary breast cancer.

Many of us described the shock of our cancer diagnosis as a 'wake-up call'. Aware of our mortality, it feels like a call to live our lives well, but this realisation can bring high expectations. We feel under pressure to embrace every moment, to become this new, adventurous person, given a second chance, with a zest for life and who must do more, striving to be a better person.

Feeling under pressure to change can carry the implication that it was our fault that we got cancer in the first place. We feel guilty. So much energy can be consumed by trying to keep fears of cancer at bay - whether we have a primary diagnosis and we're trying to get back to some sort of normality, or a secondary diagnosis and we're holding on to as much normality as we can.

Naz told us that research suggests that the highest levels of depression following diagnosis are seen when active treatment ends: this is exactly when expectations and prescriptions on moving forward and living life to the fullness of being happy and grateful are put forward. As time goes by, anxiety is usually fuelled by fear of recurrence which feeds into depressive and guilty episodes of not living up to these expectations, increasing our vulnerability and impairing our quality of life.

Others' expectations of us at this vulnerable stage are high.They see us as 'cured', fixed, well. Whether we like it or not, we are seen as a 'cancer survivor', with all sorts of assumptions projected onto us - that we are going to run a marathon, climb a mountain, jump out of a plane. While many of us can and do challenge ourselves, often to raise money for charities, it is not, and nor should it become, a prescription.

For our members with secondary breast cancer, there are intense feelings of sadness about leaving loved ones early, a grief at leaving too soon. Knowing that their lives will be shortened, the magic of daily life becomes very special.

As we listened to one another, we realised that if having cancer teaches us anything, it's that we have no control over life's fragility, actually we never did, that life, our health, can be snatched from us in a heartbeat. Our cancer almost always affects our physical capability and this means accepting, adjusting and moving ahead. Life still throws us curve balls, cancer or no cancer, and we aren't spared the trials and tribulations. What we do have is our attitude to help us choose. Whatever our situation, whatever our restrictions, whatever our sadness, we still have choices how we can live according to our values and what is important to us.

The legacy of a breast cancer diagnosis is a desire for authenticity. We want to be free to be ourselves. This means getting to know who we are now and we need to explore our feelings. We need to feel we can express our feelings, without shame or guilt. We want to move through our fear and anger and find joy in the midst of our anxiety. We want to find our pleasure in the treasure of presence, whilst still looking ahead to the rest of our life, however long that might be.

We learned that it's ok not to know exactly how to define ourselves, we can let go, be flexible, choose who to be, how to be. We can evolve. We can decide.


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