August 22, 2013

Living Amidst the Potential Late Effects of Cancer Treatment

The potential late effects of cancer treatment walk hand in hand with the unknown. On one hand you wonder IF you will experience physical and/or emotional late effects, and IF you do, then what will you experience and when will you experience them.

The unknown and uncertainty are mighty powerful striking at the core of personal security and scaring us to our wits end. We wonder, we fear, we worry, we cry, and we panic as we muck  around in what might happen today, tomorrow, a year from now, or five to ten years from now. We know this sucks the LIFE out of us, methodically taking the ‘right now’ away from us. Yet, those thoughts and emotions dance on, making us believe we have little control.

Why is it we get very little if any instruction on how to deal with the unknown and this uncertainty? Clearly, managing our thoughts and feelings in this realm seems essential to our emotional and physical wellbeing.

Working with cancer patients and caregivers in psychotherapy dealing who live in the shadow of the unknown and uncertainty that follows a cancer diagnosis and its treatment, I’ve discovered some effective emotional wellbeing tools for every survivor’s toolbox.

1) Validate How You Feel

“Of course I feel _______, whatever it is you feel. It’s normal to feel your feelings. Validate your feelings. Sometimes, we try to push them down, only to have them come back with greater intensity and usually at the most inopportune times.

Once validated, move your thoughts on to another subject or distract yourself with another activity. You want to establish a habit pattern of not dwelling on the unknown, the uncertainty.

The only caveat to validating is when your emotions are interfering with your daily functioning at which point it’s important to consult your doctor.

2) Remind Yourself

You were already facing the unknown when you were diagnosed with cancer or when you became a caregiver. You most likely didn’t know how to move through that either, but you did. Remind yourself of the path you traveled that you thought impossible at the time and draw courage.

3) ‘What If’ Thinking

One ‘what if’ thought leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to yet another.

What if thoughts are so powerful they can spiral you into tremendous fear and anxiety.

What if I’m not at risk for late effects, but they come anyway? What if I’m in need of a heart transplant, or I’m diagnosed with recurrent cancer? What if the doctors can’t do anything for me?

Nothing good comes from ‘what if’ thinking. Catch ‘what if’ thoughts as soon as you can and don’t answer it, or each time you hear ‘what if’ answer with what if, what if, what if ENOUGH! Then, choose to think about something else.

4) Breathe to Calm

Research has repeatedly established physiologically we can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time. Become skilled with a helpful breathing technique for calming.

Take a deep breath saying the word inhale silently. Breathe in slowly, INHALE. Then exhale slowly, saying EXHALE silently, as you breathe out. After you’ve exhaled, say the word PAUSE silently. In the pause, nothing is going on. You are not inhaling and you are not exhaling. You are simply pausing. When you are pausing work with thinking P A U S E 1, 2, 3, 4. If the pause feels too long, adjust the numbers to feeling comfortable.

Once you’ve tried the exercise several times, you can substitute: a favorite word, phrase, or color for the word “pause” and for the counted numbers. When using this tool, choose whatever meaningful word, color, or phrase leads to enhanced relaxation.

You will want to work with this tool before you need it, as it is a skill requiring practice in order to be effective. Once you have mastered it, you can use this technique virtually any time, except when you’re driving.

5) Moving Forward

Since the unknown is always present, managing your thoughts and emotions within this realm is both empowering and essential for your own wellbeing, perhaps even your sanity. Managing anything is a skill you can learn and master, or at least become proficient enough to benefit.

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