When I last saw my oncologist, he referred me to a counselor about some anxiety and flashbacks. It’s one of the free services available to me as an ongoing patient being monitored post-cancer.
I had one appointment, and we had a good talk. He gave me perspective and helped me understand that I already do have a lot of life skills and ways to cope with anxiety as memory flashbacks happen. I just need to breathe through it and wait a few minutes for it to pass. It seems like a grief response, he said, and will get less frequent with time. But it’s normal. It’s intrusive but not disabling.
One research paper found that 48% of patients studied had intrusive thoughts. Read more in “Intrusive cognitions and their appraisal in anxious cancer patients.“
The counsellor also recommended the book Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer by Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo. It was available at the patient library so I checked out a copy and read it.
It included many quotes from interviews with survivors and had a lot of useful advice. It suggested making a healing plan that encompasses various life domains, and then evaluating and changing that plan as needed.
I found it a bit overwhelming to do all the exercises and consider some big questions being posed. One hard one is that apparently many cancer survivors feel that because they got a second chance on life, they must do something big — would I? Like travel the world, climb a mountain, or change careers. On top of that, the healing plan called for life changes in exercise, diet, spirituality, and other domains.
I wanted life to return to the way it was, I was happy before diagnosis, and don’t want big changes. I liked what I’d been doing, and in reading the book, felt pressured to be something I’m not.
I came to realize I had already created a healing plan, many months ago, and have put it into practice. Over a year ago I began daily exercise. I also began writing fiction again in June, and when I did I set a goal of both walking and writing daily. For the most part I’ve kept up both. As well, I adhered to a diet plan, and that’s demanded discipline and is part of my healing needs.
But evaluation is part of the plan, and I realized that my healing plan was not making me happy, I was not enjoying the daily drudgery. Meanwhile the book was suggesting all kinds of changes that other survivors made: hardcore fitness plans, art classes, retiring, yoga, strict diets, and much more. Many things, expensive beyond my modest means.
What do I want to do, that’s doable? And why?
Overall, the book made me more upset the more I read it, and although there were some good messages I will use — things like now that I’m a survivor I’m no longer living day by day and must plan long term as well as be in the moment — I found the experience not very helpful.
I spoke to my psychiatrist about it and she said self-help can be high-pressure, and that while some survivors do go on to emulate Lance Armstrong, many do not make big changes and it’s OK not to. Certainly the book allowed for individual differences in goals, I just didn’t react well.
Since then, I’ve been rediscovering a love of drawing. I bought a better self-help book that’s not self-help, it’s an affordable and portable art activity prompt: 642 Tiny Things to Draw, plus a set of mini scented neon markers. I’m enjoying drawing and not expecting perfection but discovering my childhood talent is still buried inside.
As well, I’ve been having more fun writing fiction, it hasn’t been as hard as it can feel some days. So that part of my healing plan can stay. Exercise and diet have to stay too. Workplace is fine. Marriage is great. I’d love to travel the world, but I have to accept that I can’t afford every dream.
Happiness is not something to seek out but lies in accepting what I have.