No one wants to think about cancer, but few of us, whether ourselves, a friend, or a loved one, are untouched by this diagnosis. In fact, when I was researching information online about cancer, the first article was titled, “1.95M People May Be Diagnosed With Cancer in 2023.”
The word cancer is unsettling, and I never thought I’d experience it. All that changed following my first mammogram when I was told I had ductal carcinoma. “I have cancer,” screamed in my head as a flood of emotions overwhelmed me. Now, after several medical decisions, six surgeries, and a ten-year treatment plan, I am still here. Through that experience, I gained a new understanding of intense emotions. A cancer diagnosis is systemic and complex, as mine affected not only me but also my family, my work, and especially my husband and two young daughters. No mother wants to share with her children what could possibly happen because of her diagnosis. The unknown can be very scary.
Immediately worst-case scenarios began to play out in my mind. As I heard others’ cancer stories, the horrible ones dominated the positive stories of miraculous cures. Human minds are designed to look at possible negatives to help us prepare to survive, but instead of seeing it that way, we tend to believe the worst. That’s when anxiety and depression take over, and there goes our mental health.
As a therapist, I knew I had to take care not only of my body but also the mental health of my family and myself. My therapist helped me recognize that the movie I was playing in my mind of pain, suffering, my children crying, struggling in life without a mother, and even my death; these things had not even happened. I had lost perspective of life.
Along this journey, I gained some wisdom and insight I’d like to share with you.
Take a moment to breathe. I set my phone timer to remind myself to “stop and breathe,” to get out of the negative thoughts and bring myself back into the present. When we are worried or anxious, we take shorter breaths or even have moments when we hold our breath. This causes cardiovascular problems as cortisol levels rise, and lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that fight infection, are lowered. This can trigger anxiety or even a panic attack and compromise the immune system. I needed my immune system at its peak, so deep breaths were required to keep me healthy.
Pray, meditate, and walk every day. This not only helped with my breathing but also helped me stay away from those negative stories in my mind. These activities helped me focus on my life, my priorities, my values, and on me. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” This verse from Joshua 1:9 reminded me I could trust God and His universe.
Research to make informed decisions, advocate for yourself, but also learn when to stop. There is so much information online. Some is useful, but some can harm, as well. People will offer millions of suggestions and stories, which can be overwhelming. Find a physician you trust, second and third opinions are good, make an informed decision, and trust the treatment plan.
Sleep. I can’t stress this enough; sleep is healing. At first, it was hard to sleep, but it took discipline and was essential for my recovery and overall mental and physical health.
Find positives and be grateful. This takes practice. I latched onto my marriage and daughters.
Make plans. Looking forward to something positive (for me, it was travel) also helps keep your focus off the negatives, both real and imagined, and in the present.
Surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you, such as your physicians, special friends, and family. And get therapy. Cancer is not something we should handle alone.
I hope cancer is never a diagnosis you have to deal with, but if it is, I hope these suggestions I learned from my cancer journey will help and comfort you.
Dr. Jessica Gibbe Fernandez is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Alabama. She is a Certified Sex Therapist, a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and an Approved Supervisor for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Jessica’s clinical interests include marriage and couples therapy, healthy relationships, and family therapy. She sees adolescents and adults with depression, anxiety, stress, self-esteem and personal growth issues, life transitions, gender issues (LGBTQ+), sexuality issues, family adjustment and acculturation.