Monday, 11 November 2019

BRiC's Collective Voice: Emotional experiences post diagnosis; Aug. 16, 2019

'The uncertainty we are left with, the ambiguity we are trying to process, the side effects we have to deal with and the positivity we need to live up to. There is so much going on.'

This week we asked the question: ‘Why are some emotions harder to experience after a breast cancer diagnosis, and others easier? Does it have something to do with protecting us from emotional distress?’

As you might expect from a group of women who have all had a breast cancer diagnosis, some primary and some secondary, we all find intense emotion triggered by hearing about cancer, reading about cancer, talking about cancer, even adverts about cancer on tv. What surprises us, sometimes, is the unexpected rush of head-on emotion that we are confronted with, often when we are in situations which make it difficult to deal with. Some of us described having to withdraw from situations or conversations in order to take a few deep breaths to stabilise ourselves, to manage the threatening panic that wells up inside us. Our post-cancer brain is on high alert and wants us to run away from anything cancer related, flight being preferable to fight in social situations where we need to maintain our decorum.

The trauma that is caused by a breast cancer diagnosis weighs heavily on the brain. We want to make sense of what we’ve been through, we want to come to terms with it and its impact, but sometimes our need to process what’s happened is just too much for us to cope with in the moment. At these times, our brains will simply shut off the experience and we find ourselves numb and dissociated, distanced from our own suffering in order to allow our broken brain to deal with whatever is in front of us. Our fear is so intense that the brain builds a wall which is a barrier to our emotions. Sometimes we break through the wall, and as time goes on we may find emotions hit us like a train, causing upset that demands we plug the hole in the barrier and leave the emotions firmly shut away from view. As a result we may find ourselves living with conflict and contradictions in our own head, wanting to understand, accept and even make friends with our experience, yet being unable to face the fear which threatens to overwhelm us. Our feelings may become out of synch with our current experience, with sadness flowing over us when we are in beautiful surroundings or living with continuous low level anxiety.

Our members described a huge raft of different emotions which we struggle with, not least anger which sits alongside the cry of why me? Why can’t I move on? Guilt at surviving, guilt at the pain our cancer causes others. We are angry that we didn’t get the support we expected and needed during treatment, that we are not getting the support we need now. We are angry that our bodies let us down.

Self-awareness is strong for our members, many of us having worked with counsellors and psychotherapists in order to process our experience of breast cancer. However, self-awareness may not be enough as our brains will act to protect us without us knowing and this can cause confusion and can lead to depression. A downward spiral of feelings we can’t own or process that overtakes any rationality, with fear dominating our waking thoughts. Our fear may lead us to disengage from anything that forces us to feel strong emotion and we find ourselves living at arm’s length from our feelings and distancing ourselves from life rather than immersing ourselves. Some of us reported evaluating our emotional experience rather than allowing the emotion just to be there. Living in black and white rather than in colour.

There is an external pressure to put on a brave face, to be positive, all the time. However many of us don’t feel positive about our cancer, although we can be positive about the day to day of our lives. The uncertainty we are left with, the ambiguity we are trying to process, the side effects we have to deal with and the positivity we need to live up to. There is so much going on. On the outside, we are smiling, positive, in control. On the inside, we may be isolated, lonely, terrified, sad.

We may be at our most vulnerable at the end of treatment for primary breast cancer. The chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy is finished. We are sent away, possibly with a packet of pills depending on what type of cancer we have, to get on with it. The structure provided by appointments is gone. Now we have time to think, time to process what we’ve just been through. Our emotions are heightened, just as everyone around us is congratulating us for being brave, lucky, strong (and all the other platitudes) and aren’t we glad we can get back to normal life now? It’s very common for depression to hit us like a stone and we may feel totally bewildered. We may find it hard to sit and think about our cancer, as thinking about it makes it real, and while we were on the treatment rollercoaster we didn’t have to acknowledge it was happening to us, we were just doing as we were told, not feeling very much at all, we were too busy.

Many members commented on how useful it is to have the safe space that is our private group where we can tell it like it is with no fear of upsetting anyone. We all want to protect our loved ones from how we really feel, we don’t want them to be feeling our fear. In time, many of us are coming to terms with what has happened to our bodies and the mental scars left behind. As one member put it: we move on to find joy in the simpler things despite being quick to anger. The depth of our emotion means we can move from elation to sadness in a heartbeat, holding both together with our fragility. We may be broken, but we are here.

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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