• Catherine Steele

Help! I've got Cancer - WHAT NOW?

The very moment that you are told that you have incurable cancer, life changes forever. In a split second, familiar feelings of confidence, security and purpose instantly disappear and are replaced with deep loneliness and white-knuckle fear.

Then comes the outpouring of kindness as friends, family (and sometimes even virtual strangers) rally round to try to convince you that everything will be alright. They bring gifts that feel meaningless, promises of help that feel empty and words of comfort that sound like platitudes. It's not their fault, they are lovely people who are doing their very best to help, but what they don't understand is that you have become an outsider to their world. The factors that united you - your shared purpose and interests - have completely lost their relevance in your new world. All that matters now is your survival. This is a deeply lonely and terrifying place to be.

Just like dogs, human beings are basically pack animals. We have evolved to live in social structures where we work together, each one contributing to the survival of the whole tribe. We thrive emotionally and physically when we are part of a tribe or community and our brains have developed to feel disturbed and anxious when we are separated from our tribe.

A cancer diagnosis, especially a Stage IV cancer diagnosis forces that separation upon us. Whilst still physically part of our tribe, we are mentally very separated. It's a dark place to be and there are huge similarities between these feeling and the inner thoughts of people who suffer from depression. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the number of people affected by depression is rising globally. Many scientists now believe that this rise is, at least in part, caused by the erosion of social structures and society's failure to meet our emotional and psychological needs. Our interactions are now far more likely to be conducted over Facebook or Instagram than having a coffee with a friend or attending a club. By substituting meaningful interactions with brief digital tweets or texts, we are losing the depth and authenticity of face-to face social contact. We are becoming more isolated and evolution has taught us that this is a dangerous state to be in.

Although I have never suffered from depression, my Stage IV cancer diagnosis certainly left me emotionally and psychologically broken and in desperate need to deploy some of the strategies that are commonly used in the treatment of depression.

I'd like to share with you, some of the things that helped me recover my sense of joy and purpose in the hope that these help you.

1. Time Heals

It's a cliche, but as with most cliches, it is firmly rooted in truth. You have had one almighty shock, probably the worst shock of your life. Your brain simply doesn't know how to react. All it's tried and tested strategies for dealing with shocking events aren't up to dealing with something this big. It needs time to learn how to emotionally process the situation. Your brain doesn't know whether to to be upset, angry, despondent, optimistic or anything else. It is normal to have rapidly changing emotional states as your mind desperately searches for a way to cope.

My advice is to ride these emotions out. Keeping them bottled up, putting on a brave face or suppressing them will only lead to greater problems in the long run. Scream, shout, cry - all these expressions of emotion will help you recover more quickly from this life changing shock.

One day you will suddenly become aware that you have managed to genuinely laugh at a joke or have lost yourself in a film without thinking about cancer at all. At first, these moments will be very fleeting, but they are the first signs that your brain is starting to cope and recover.

2. Seek Support

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous work so well as they create tribes of people with the same mutual interest. If you are lucky enough to have an active support group in your area, join it now! Not only will it help in your recovery, but you will undoubtedly be able to help someone else with theirs. I wish there were more structured support groups for people with cancer. Wouldn't it be amazing if there was something similar to Alcoholics Anonymous with a national coverage and regular local meet ups? Unfortunately, support groups are rather thin on the ground, especially outside of cities.

As much as technology has eroded our ability to form meaningful supportive relationships, it can also step in to fill the gap in the availability of support. Online support groups are available 24/7 and I've found them a source of great comfort and reassurance, especially in the early days. These random groups of strangers from all four corners of the world 'get it' in a way that your friends and family almost certainly don't and they will welcome you into their fold and support you.

If you're a private person like me, you don't even need to post anything, just reading other people's stories is often enough. And if you feel a connection with anyone in the group, you can always send them a personal message (PM). One of my dear friends is someone I met through a support group. Our friendship has grown so that we often now speak on the phone and have even met in person despite being hundreds of miles apart.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment. Mindfulness teaches us to let go of past events that may cloud our enjoyment of the present and to limit our thoughts about the future to only those that are essential for planning. By focussing on the present moment we become more conscious and it gives our minds the space and freedom to appreciate the beauty and joy in life.

Mindfulness has been used effectively in treating depression,. The turning point for me was listening to Eckhart Tolle's book 'The Power of Now' on my daily walks. As each day passed and I got further into the book, I was able to see the world around me more clearly and vividly. It is quite a heavy book, and I'm not sure whether I would have managed to get through the paper version, but I can highly recommend listening to the audio version while absorbed in nature.

The practice of mindfulness has become a bedrock for me. Not only has it helped me enormously in dealing with anxiety, it also underpins the decisions I make about how I choose to live my life on a daily basis.

4. Find your New Tribe

There is no denying that a Stage IV cancer diagnosis is life changing. There's nothing like staring down the barrel of a gun to help you focus on what is important to you. Before my diagnosis, I poured an enormous amount of energy into running my IT company. Apart from my family, it was the most important thing in my life.

Now I couldn't care less about IT. I care about my relationships. I care about nurturing my emotional and physical health. I care about being outdoors.

I've work hard to ensure that I spend time with people who care about the same things as I do and consciously strive to minimise my interactions with people who bring me down.

I'm finding my new tribe and am no longer alone on my journey.

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