There are very few things in life that can match the emotional roller coaster ride of having a loved one get diagnosed with cancer. When my fiancée was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, I can remember reeling through emotions every minute, every hour, and every day.
That first day of diagnosis my main question was “why him? This isn’t fair.”
Once the reality of the diagnosis set in, the next emotion up on the ride was grief. Mostly we began grieving the future. My fiancée was only in his mid-20’s at the time, and I was unsure what, if any, life experiences cancer might take away from us. Life experiences like having a family together or worse, cutting our time together short.
Things were uncertain in those first couple of days of being diagnosed with cancer, especially what our future looked like. Anyone who has taken a ride on the cancer roller coaster understands the levels of grief and uncertainty. The questions about your future may be different, but the experience is similar.
From uncertainty came fear and worry.
We began worrying about all the things that were going to change in our life. How would it be without being able tot work? Will he be very ill with treatment? Can we get through the stress? What do we tell our friends? When we began to think about all the things that would definitely change to the things that could possibly change in the upcoming weeks, months, and years a sense of anxiety arose from the worry.
From anxiety came the need to do something. We began researching the cancer, empowering ourselves to be active participants in the experience. We began finding resources that provided technical information as well as emotional support. It seemed like if we knew everything about cancer, then we could over come it.
Once treatment started we got into the “just get through this” mode.
We had a count down to each milestone of treatment and used these milestones as proof that we were progressing on the ride, and it would be over soon.
When I think about the emotional roller coaster ride of cancer, I am grateful for learning how to come into the present moment and focus on what is truly important in life, which is love.
When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, you begin to rearrange your life so that only the really important things get done. You also start to look at how you can really enjoy life to the fullest.
We began shifting towards more fulfilling relationships with deeper meaning.
Coming into the present moment was the only way I could get through the tough emotions and tough care giving duties that came up on a daily basis. If I could just get through today, it will be okay. I had to release expectations that I could do everything, and some days it was clear that there was nothing I could do except be present.
While coming into the present moment and accepting one’s limitation is a noble path in many spiritual traditions, it is a difficult path.
One of the unexpected parts of the cancer journey is what I like to call “emotional whiplash” which happened at the end of the ride when our oncologist told us he would see us in 6 months. I thought this announcement would bring much joy, relief, and excitement. But instead, this announcement brought up fear, grief, and sadness. It felt just like when a roller coaster stops, your heart is still racing, and you brace yourself for this forward momentum to suddenly come to a halt.
During treatment when we were only able to process the present moment, a lot of emotions were suppressed. This was not intentional, it was just part of how we could get through the day.
Now that we had exited the ride and we were staring back up at it, we were left to reenact all the dips, turns, and loops of the experience and process what it all meant.
For me, this was probably the most difficult part of the ride. It was difficult because it was completely unexpected. I had trouble integrating back into social groups, prioritizing tasks that were left undone during treatment, and making sense of the whole experience. I would come home from work upset at my colleagues, wondering how inconsequential things (inconsequential when compared to death, illness, and cancer) could consume their lives.
Then, as life after cancer began settling down, being upset turned into feeling guilty because I too started worrying about the less important things in life.
I asked several colleagues, social workers, and therapists about the difficulty I was experiencing in reintegrating my pre and post cancer life and the emotional whiplash that I was going through. They all assured me that it was normal, but also told me that not very many people have talked to them about this part of the ride. I was fascinated that other caregivers and survivors hadn’t made this a fore front issue. We got through this portion of our ride by looking into meditation, Qi Gong, support groups, and creative expression. This helped both of us process our separate but similar reactions to the experience.
It is only recently that research has been published on the post-cancer emotional whiplash.
It has been identified as Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), and new studies are emerging about how to prevent and support this emotional response. Some studies suggest that PTS can impact caregivers and family members even more severely then the cancer survivor. Several activities can be effective in supporting you through post traumatic stress, which include support groups, yoga, and exercise.
If you are currently going through the cancer roller coaster, it is important that you acknowledge the significant emotional trauma this roller coaster ride can be.
You may not have the capacity to process it all in the present moment, but you will need to come back and process it when you are ready. I recommend setting up a retreat or being prepared with counseling sessions after the last rounds of treatment. Give yourself time to process the experience before jumping into resuming “normal” life. There is a new normal for everyone, and by taking time to define that new normal for yourself you might experience a better transition.