I was surfing a breast cancer forum today and was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of people crying out in anger and frustration and not being able to express that to loved ones. It made me feel sad for them and a little confused. I guess I am pretty lucky to have such awesome Bosomers like yourselves around to listen to my every rant but I also realised I haven’t felt those particular emotions that often. I remember clearly the day I got the diagnosis and coincidentally we had booked months before to go and visit our lovely friend Karen in Scotland. The flight left a few hours after I left the breast cancer clinic and the whole journey to the airport is a bit of a blur. Once we were on the plane though, the memories are sharper. There were two young women drinking champagne and giggling a few rows in front of me and I was shouting at them in my head “Don’t you know that stuff could KILL you?” On the other row of seats in front was an older man who dared to stretch his arms in a glib, bored fashion. Didn’t he know that serious and life-threatening things were afoot? How could he be so cavalier with his body movements? A week later on the flight home, Sleazyjet lined us all up in a very narrow corridor for 20 minutes before letting us on the plane. As the heat increased and my claustrophobia ratcheted up, I was a hair’s breath away from screaming at everyone, “GET ME OUT OF THIS CORRIDOR! I HAVE BREAST CANCER GODDAMMIT!”
So I’ve definitely felt that rage and sense of injustice, but it passed fairly quickly and I haven’t really seen a strong resurgence. Reflecting on why this is so and all I can think is that I accepted the diagnosis fairly early on. However, this is not a wisdom I gained from this particular life drama but from many others that have come before it. It was a lesson that was hard won. The psychological definition of acceptance “is a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognising a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest.” I would differentiate acceptance from acquiescence which implies a more passive state or sense of giving up. I’m not talking about throwing in the towel. I’m talking about letting things that you can’t change be what they are. I don’t have all the science to back this up as there is this grey area between psychological theory and clinical studies so forgive my very subjective take on this.
There are studies to show that the opposite of this state of acceptance which I will say completely unscientifically here is the fight or flight response. This evolved as a way to get us to run very quickly away from creatures with sharp, pointy teeth that wanted to eat us. It works really well for short term problems but is not so great in the long run and can lead to heart disease, weight gain, depression etc. A cancer diagnosis can produce this response but it’s not good to hang onto it. Cancer is a long term threat to life so you need a more sustainable coping strategy. Legging it or punching cancer in the face ain’t gonna cut it. On a side note, just for reference, this is why telling someone they can ‘fight’ cancer isn’t the best statement to hear. Being in cortisol-fuelled emergency mode will do more harm than good. Also the whole reason I got cancer is because I can’t ‘fight’ it. My immune system is being very silly and thinks cancer is its mate. Cancer is the ultimate frenemy.
Connected to this is getting a good nights sleep. Not an easy feat I accept. There is evidence to show that people with depression don’t experience vital parts of the sleep cycle and this interferes with their ability to process information from the day’s events and incorporate it into their sense of self. I feel that it’s vital to my mental health that I make cancer part of my identity. I will live with it for the rest of my life, whatever that looks like. The tricky bit is to accept cancer without letting it subsume the whole. Much as the physical manifestation of the disease is attempting an aggressive takeover of my body, it is trying to do the same to my mind. Ignoring it or yelling at it (or random strangers on planes) won’t make it go away. Just as I had to accept my lumpy boob, so do I let cancer become a part of my self. A small, but profound part.