Wednesday 20 November 2019

BRiC's Collective Voice: Our Coping Strategies, Oct. 28. 2019

'It’s often said that it’s the little things that matter, and never is this more true than when we’re dealing with a great big uncontrollable thing like breast cancer.'

This week our discussion focussed on coping strategies: what has worked well for us in dealing with our breast cancer diagnosis.

Our members described many different ways of coping, a dominant theme being avoidance and distraction. By keeping busy, with work, families, activities, we remain outside ourselves, we don’t have to face our fears or process our trauma. We don’t want to see what is going on inside our heads, our hearts, and so we keep our brains occupied at all times, with doing, planning, worrying. If we never stop, the fear cannot harm us. Busyness becomes our default mode of operation, our way of maintaining normality after our breast cancer diagnosis throws us off our planned path and we constantly strive to go back to how and who we were before. Many of us realise that this just isn’t possible, and it’s an uncomfortable truth.

For those of us used to being very active and busy, the fatigue that comes with our breast cancer can be hugely frustrating. We may try to overcome it by keeping going until we crash, and develop an unhealthy pattern of start/stop. We are trying to fix what we perceive as a problem instead of addressing our fatigue by adapting to our new capability. If we can no longer do everything we used to do before, can we do a gentler version, find a different way. Flexibility is key to coping well.

Hiding our emotions away for long periods of time can lead to an unhealthy mental state, with pent up feelings likely to come to the fore at inappropriate moments. How much better for our wellbeing to acknowledge and where possible, accept. We can allow ourselves to do nothing, to cry, to feel. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

As one member wrote, ‘I definitely need to press the pause button, for me and the family at times. It’s always worth it.’

Many of our members pride themselves on being organised, as this helps with anxiety. Some of us like to imagine the worst case scenario for a situation and plan for that, knowing that we are prepared for anything can be helpful in managing worries about the future. Antidepressants have their place in helping us to cope. Humour is a great way of dispelling fear too, but a few of us have found it difficult to access after diagnosis, and it may return a darker shade! Some of us are seeking better balance in our lives, planning in downtime, alone time, me time. Scheduling blocks of free time without external commitment can be very therapeutic, giving us choices in how to spend that time: sleeping, walking, reading, whatever we want.

When we feel overwhelmed, breaking things down into small chunks can be very helpful, along with slowing down the pace of activity and doing one thing at a time, taking one day at a time. Building in small treats - our favourite cake, a candlelit bath, a short walk - when the going gets really tough, is priceless. It’s often said that it’s the little things that matter, and never is this more true than when we’re dealing with a great big uncontrollable thing like breast cancer. Particularly secondary breast cancer, when treatment is ongoing and relentless and we have huge horrible tasks to contend with such as telling our loved ones about our prognosis. Extreme self-care becomes a priority.

Journaling has helped many of us, we find that writing down how we are feeling brings clarity. Others find meditation and mindfulness invaluable. Others have used selfie photos to remind themselves of how far they have come. Familiar podcasts can be soothing and provide focus when the mind is racing out of control. Breathing exercises can help us to be in the moment and find calm during times of stress. Exercise and fresh air can be of huge benefit also. Pets can be a huge source of love and comfort.

Lots of these pleasurable leisure activities can be seen as distractions in the same way as working too hard, and it’s clear we need to be careful that we are not continuing to make excuses in order to avoid our feelings. We may become accustomed to the numbness and take comfort in it. In order to actually move on perhaps we need to actively change our internal dialogue. Mindfulness can help with this: observing what is happening in the body and in the mind and around us in this moment, not trying to make anything different, not labelling or judging, just noticing and letting each moment go as it passes. This practice can lead to an inner calm and peace which can be transformational.

Some of us have had counselling which has helped to put things in perspective. Talking through our experiences can help acceptance. Others are blessed with supportive friends and family and like to talk things through regularly. Some of us are struggling with our relationships and find we hold our feelings inside to protect others. This can be where private groups like BRiC come into their own, as everyone is in the same boat and ‘gets it’ and we encourage sharing the bare raw truth.

Moving from coping to thriving may be all about self-care and self-compassion. So many of us have grown up looking after everyone around us and leaving our own needs until last, so that often they remain unmet. We must learn to put ourselves first, and that means searching within for the strength to find the answers. With a little help from our friends, of course.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please leave your name in the comments or send us a private message.

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