Thriving with cancer
Written by Geraldine Joaquim
“I’m sorry, it’s cancer.”
It’s hard to get past those words.
Everything else fades into the background, and then the thoughts rush in: How will I tell my family, my daughters? Will I lose my hair? Is this it, will I die?
Calm down, take a breath. Listen to the words that are still coming… “It’s highly treatable… we’ve caught it early… you’ll need another operation to check if it’s spread, once we know we have it all out you’ll have a course of radiotherapy to make sure it won’t return, and medication as a preventative measure… regular check-ups…”
It felt like the consultant wasn’t talking to me. Me, who’s vegetarian. Who doesn’t smoke and only has the odd glass of wine now and again. Who does yoga and runs and looks after my health. Who’s job revolved around wellbeing and stress management.
But then, why not me.
It’s estimated that 1 in 2 British women1 will develop cancer in their lifetime, and 1 in 3 men. That’s 363,317 new cancer cases2 annually – that means nearly 1,000 people being told they have it every day.
However there is some good news. In the 1970’s, only 1 in 4 cancer patients would survive their disease for ten years or more, but by 2010 this had risen to 2 in 4, and survival continues to improve today. We are lucky to have screening programmes in the UK – that was how mine was first detected, through a routine mammogram. Breast screening is offered to women aged 50 to 71 in England (happy 50th birthday me!) and smears from the age of 25, and men can request a PSA test (Prostate specific antigen) if you’re over 50.
Get checked. Early detection means a better outcome.
Sadly a fifth of all cancers in England are diagnosed via an emergency route3 which means those people are experiencing outward signs of more advanced cancer, and with the complications of the pandemic this is set to increase as routine screening has been postponed, GPs have been unavailable for face-to-face consultations, and some people are reluctant to see a doctor at all for fear of contracting COVID.
So what does living with cancer really mean?
My experience has not been all bad. Yes it’s emotionally stressful to hear the diagnosis, and there was a lot of going back and forth to the hospital for several mammograms and biopsies, two operations and a course of radiotherapy, plus follow up appointments and on-going checks. It didn’t help that extra covid tests had to be done, and no one was allowed in with me to the hospital for support, that hurt my husband a lot.
But I never actually felt ‘unwell’ thanks to that early detection. Even the operations were minimally painful, the radiotherapy was like having very mild sunburn.
Throughout my treatment I continued to be active with dog walks and daily yoga (I did stop running for a while, until the scars healed), but I was lucky, I know other people have different experiences and of course it does depend on the type of cancer, where it is and how advanced, and the treatment path.
My routine continued pretty much as before but I did allow more time to talk to friends and family (something that had slipped during the pandemic), it’s important to remember that the impact isn’t just on me but on loved ones too.
Work-wise, with everything going online I continued via Zoom, Teams, etc and worked 1-2-1 with clients, including supporting someone going through terminal mesothelioma (cancer in the tissue that line the lungs, chest cavity, abdomen). I chose to tell certain work contacts what I was going through and everyone has been very supportive, but I wanted to continue as normal, as much as possible.
Tips to Thrive through Cancer
- Sometimes life is hard… but you don’t have to make it harder than it needs to be. Negative states such as anger, depression, and anxiety elicit negative decisions, blinkered perceptions, and narrowed thinking. It stops you focusing on the good things you do have, and you waste a huge amount of energy railing against things you can’t control. So practise positive thinking, looking for the good stuff, things to be grateful for, you’ll release positive hormones that shift your emotions and help you cope better.
- Practise self-compassion. Having said the above, don’t deny that this moment sucks! Embrace it, ask yourself “What do I need right now?” – this can be anything from a little time and space to absorb those feelings, a hug from a family member, or simply acknowledging that this moment is hard. It doesn’t demand self-care but can lead to it, and it helps to reduce stress in the moment.
- Keep doing what you feel like doing. If you’re used to being active then keep being active, but tweak it to work with your treatment or how you’re feeling. Work with the body you have today. And do look after your pillars of health (nutrition, movement, sleep, relax), they will help you cope and recover so much better.
- Allow for delayed reaction. You might have coped through the diagnosis and treatment really well, taken it all in your stride but then suddenly you’re crying in the stationery cupboard! It’s normal to have a delayed reaction if you’ve gone through a difficult time or been holding it together for others. Exposure to stress can cause anxiety in the moment or after the event, after the stress exposure has seemingly ended. Acknowledge your feelings, and allow yourself a little self-compassion.
Cancer is serious but it doesn’t have to define who you are. Only you can do that.
1 according to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer
Thank you to Geraldine Joaquim for this article.
Geraldine is one of the team of experts who work with Your Employee Wellbeing. Our wellbeing programmes are created to provide support to enable employees cope with whatever challenges they may face.
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