Last year, one of my great friends suffered from and conquered breast cancer. She was diagnosed at 36 and it was a great shock. For her and all of those around her. On a personal note, I work mostly with the elderly and sometimes it’s easy to forget younger people can die as well. It wasn’t easy supporting a friend that went through a life-threatening condition, as well as dealing with my own feelings about it.
In this article I’m going to talk about how my friend Iris dealt with her illness and how I did as well. And if you think we psychologists are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, think again. Apparently when it comes to dealing with our own emotions, we’re just like everybody else. Merely humans. And the prospect of losing someone you care about hurts just as bad.
The diagnosis: Like a death sentence
It feels like a hole has opened in the ground and you’re going to be tossed into it, when you hear the doctor’s diagnosis. Cancer. It feels like a death sentence. But what if it’s not? How do you face a potentially life-threatening illness that might not kill you? How do you stare at the abyss and restrain yourself from falling down? Or not give in and not take that step forward? It seems easier to just embrace death. How do you prevent yourself from falling into temptation?
Short answer: you grow up and “face your bull by the horns” (Spanish saying). Long answer? Keep on reading.
Dealing with a potentially terminal illness – what to expect
The work done by investigator and psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her theory on the five stages of grief help us understand not only how most patients react when faced with a life-threatening illness, but as well how others are likely to react. She has described 5 stages of grief that are not necessarily sequential: a) Shock; b) Denial; c) Anger; d) Depression and e) Acceptance. Not everyone reaches a level of acceptance and that’s when pathology arises. And it may take some time. How much? Depends on how much spiritual work you’re decided to put in to your healing process.
What are the stages in dealing with a potentially terminal illness? Some of the most commons thoughts and reactions are:
It’s all about how you deal with it
After the initial shock and the “Why me? What have I done wrong to deserve this?” questions, my friend Iris really surprised me. To the point that I initially thought she needed counselling. She’s a very spiritual person and became even more after she got sick, and once she told me her illness derived from a spiritual need to heal—she said she needed to embrace her inner child and forgive her mother for not being what she needed her to be. So it made sense she had breast cancer given the fact that breastfeeding is such an important part of the mother-child relationship. It took me some time to process what she meant, but eventually it sunk in. And I accepted that her explanation made sense to her. She needed it to keep moving forward.
The thing is: Iris took on the breast cancer as her challenge in life, her opportunity for spiritual growth and healing. And that made her see that, even if she lost her life in the process, she would need to make the necessary learning to live a full life. With whatever time she had. And that helped her overcome one of humanity’s most primal fears: the fear of death.
Up until then, she was lost and running away. She came out of the process a stronger, well-resolved and freer person. Did that make the process of going through chemotherapy and the mastectomy surgery any easier? Not really, she told me. It was still a horrifying period in her life. But there was a purpose in suffering and when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it all makes sense somehow. There is a point. Even if you’re not seeing it just yet.
Personally speaking, my reactions were mostly of wanting to help her, especially on a practical level (I offered to take her to the doctor’s, to help around the house), to listen to her over the phone (she was isolated at home for quite some time) and just trying to respect her space. Which meant being patient when she didn’t return phone calls or texts for days. There were others days when I just wanted to ignore she was sick and carry on as though nothing. There were times I thought of myself as a coward for not wanting to watch her go through all of that. The first time I saw her bald, I almost burst into tears. Yes, not very mature for a psychologist (pardon, human), I know.
How to make some sense of suffering? Psychotherapist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl developed Logotherapy (the therapy of meaning) after surviving the Nazi death camps in World War II. He lost his wife and their unborn child on the first day they got there. He survived typhus (he was one of the camp’s doctors), hunger and forced labour. After this experience, he devoted his life to helping others. In his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), he explains how it is only when we understand that suffering has a meaning and a purpose that we can overcome and release ourselves from it. And even grow into better human beings, living a full life with meaning. We are here for a reason. What is it?
Iris found her answer to this question. And is now leading a beautiful life. And will continue to do so for many years to come, I hope.
Daniela Anéis has been a clinical psychologist since 2009, with a Masters degree in Systemic at Lisbon University, Portugal. Her first experience as a clinical psychologist was in a private and Catholic mental hospital, the eldest religious congregation in the country devoted to mental health – and a real school. In 2012, she created a community based project at her hometown called Senior’s University which, through volunteer work, teaches classes to people over their 50’s and most of them retired. There are no homework, no tests and no diplomas, only people learning and enjoying life. Besides the classes, the parties, and the field trips, the main objective is to promote active ageing and enhance people’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
As a therapist in private practice, she often works with families and teenagers. She will read anything and everything that has to do with Existential Psychology and Positive Psychology.
Daniela Anéis is an optimistic and her “glass is always half-full.” Her work with active Seniors has taught her to value life even more and most importantly, life-experience. She teaches an Emotional Intelligence and Positive Psychology class but learns far more than she could ever pass on. She always has an inspiring story to tell about her “students”.
She’s hoping to reach 90 and live life to the fullest. Always working to be the better version of herself. And believing her mission in life is to relieve others from suffering.
Read more about Daniela at her blog. (In Portugese)
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