From Patient to Survivor - the Transition for Body & Mind
June 30, 2018
The “process” of having cancer and dealing with the treatment, side effects and outcomes of it has many distinct phases and each one poses its own set of challenges for the person who has cancer and for the caregivers and support people around them. There is the diagnosis, which involves tests and choosing doctors, the actual treatment itself, and the post treatment or what many people think of as the point when a person becomes a survivor. In actuality though, a person becomes a “survivor” the day they are actually diagnosed with cancer. You are “surviving” cancer the minute after you are diagnosed, although many people don’t view themselves as survivors until after the treatment is over.
It seems to me that there is a distinct shift in a person’s view of themselves during treatment and after treatment. Often times, my first contact with a client is at the time when they are completing active treatment and moving into the post treatment phase. At this point in time, the challenges seem to shift more from the physical to the emotional.
THE WARRIOR PHASE This phase of treatment conjures up all sorts of terms that describe wars and battles. Information is being given about what treatments are recommended and
how they are going to affect the body. We are required to gear up for the battle that is taking place with surgery to remove tumors and place ports. Then the chemotherapy and radiation is administered and the body has to deal with the side effects of all of the treatment. Our bodies are presented daily with the physical challenges created as a result of the efforts to rid our bodies of cancer. The issues can be minor or monumental, but every day we are faced with being in the trenches of the battle and we have to be warriors. We have to gear up for the next battle of the assault on the body. During this phase, we are operating more in a moment to moment mind set. What is going to happen today? What will I have to encounter? Blood work? Scans? Needles? My Hair? There simply isn’t a whole lot of time to think about things like “what does all of this mean to me?” Your mind stays vigilant on the task at hand, it can’t afford to shift energy to anything else. Soldiers in combat are required to stay focused!
THE SURVIVOR PHASE After treatment is finished and the doctor tells you to go home and start to resume your life again, you are no longer required to be in battle mode. Often, this can be the time when all of the gravity and reality of what has occurred comes rushing at us and it seems like too much to bear. It is a very emotional time for people. There is an opportunity to evaluate and feel the magnitude of everything that has happened and it can
actually feel similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in people who have been in war. This is often the time for tears, for fears and many will say they feel depressed. Depression is confusing for people because they think, “ my treatment is over, I should be happy so why am I crying NOW?” I think that the early phase of post treatment survivorship is a critical one for people. We have an opportunity for tremendous growth if we allow ourselves the time to evaluate all that has happened and how it has affected us. We need time to mourn the losses, appreciate the battle and what it has taken AND given to us and to look within and honor our experiences and how amazing we are as human beings. It is important to understand that for many survivors, this time of intense emotion is normal and critical in order to move forward. It may even be helpful to let patients know that they may experience these feelings when treatment is ending. If it is normalized, perhaps it would be easier for people to cope.