“Learning to cope with my cancer in a positive way wasn’t easy. But I’m better for it.”

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The day you’re told you have cancer is a day you will never forget.

I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2013, and I cried for days. Thanks to our wonderful health system, I received the best treatment for my physical symptoms that anyone could hope for, but I was shocked at how few resources were available to help me cope with the emotional impact of my diagnosis.

skills to cope with cancer
"The day you’re told you have cancer is a day you will never forget. It wasn't easy." (Image: Supplied, Chris Mackey)

I had to dig deep to find the kind of skills I would need to cope with the chemo, radiotherapy, mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Luckily for me, I’ve always been a bit of a positive psychology addict so my toolbox was pretty well stocked.

Cancer forces vulnerability upon you. The key is to find acceptance of your situation and be strengthened by this. Easier said than done, I know, and I write in hindsight.

But I drew on my old skills and discovered new ways to counteract my grief, uncertainty and fear. I was offered and accepted a lot of help. I learnt to move on with greater gratitude and purpose. This was not easy, but it has changed me for the better.

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Acknowledge your grief

Cancer is one of the biggest shocks we can be challenged by. Facing your own mortality changes your life overnight. The sad truth is, bad things do happen to good people, and often in a random and inexplicable way. You’re probably asking yourself, why me?

The first noble truth of Buddhism is ‘to live is to suffer’. Accept that life is tough and sit with those dark moments. Give yourself permission to cry, swear, be angry, break things, or do all of the above, perhaps repeatedly. You may want to sulk or, as I prefer to say, have a big sook!

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Acknowledge that life will never be the same. You may need to stay in this dark stage for a while; everyone’s experience is individual. There are no rules. Give yourself enough time to grieve about the dramatic change in your life.

All emotions are okay: being overwhelmed, furious, bitter, twisted, envious, devastated, resentful, and traumatised.

"The key is to find acceptance of your situation and be strengthened by this. Easier said than done, I know." (Image: Getty)

Harness your people power

Some people decide to “go to ground” at first. This is totally understandable, but it is best to find a balance. Think carefully about whether or not you really want to cocoon yourself away from the world and avoid your support people. The evidence is overwhelming that connection with loved ones and good friends is strengthening and supportive for those experiencing cancer.

The best predictor of wellbeing and happiness is the time you spend with other people in positive relationships. Rally your troops. Visitors are good for you.
 Choose your people wisely.
 Focus on positive-energy people and phone uplifting or funny friends when you need a boost.  Avoid your doom-and-gloom friends and family if you are not in the right frame of mind to deal with them.

Chances are, you won’t feel like contacting people, so maybe put the word out through a central friend or inner circle that you are happy for others to contact you.

Text or email people if it’s easier. Let people help if they offer. A hug lasting more than 20 seconds will release oxytocin into your body and give you a feel-good boost.

Consider joining a cancer support group. They do not suit everyone so think about how you feel afterwards. Hopefully you are energised or uplifted; if not, maybe it’s not for you.

Listen: Tina Harris shares how she juggled raising a family and her breast cancer diagnosis on I Don't Know How She Does It (post continues after audio...)

Set goals for the future

Finishing treatment is often unexpectedly a very difficult stage. People think you should be celebrating when your treatment has finished, but it can be a hollow anticlimax.

Your dependence on active medical treatment, although demanding and traumatic, provides some reassurance that everything is being done to keep you alive. Intensive medical support has been a constant for you. It can be hard to comprehend the next stage of your life.

Following medical treatment, it is important to continue with an active coping approach. This means allowing for some natural doubt and anxieties but focusing on things you can do to improve your situation.

Goals are things that you want to do rather than things that you feel you have to do. Having a goal matters more than reaching it. Research shows that people who pursue goals:

  • are happier
  • have greater wellbeing
  • are more resilient
  • are more “future oriented”.

Write down some goals for the future. Do something that you have always been meaning to do. Take up a new hobby.  Start a new positive habit, such as yoga, journaling or joining a walking group. Book a holiday, preferably somewhere warm and relaxing. Sign up for a short course. There are free online courses in positive psychology. (An added bonus is getting your brain back into gear.)

Plan some celebrations along the way. It could be “happy to be alive” days, birthdays, or anniversaries.

Positive Oncology: An Optimistic Approach to the Big C by Sue Mackey is on sale now (Balboa Press, $15).

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