When cancer enters our life, all of a sudden all of our plans are thrown out the window. We enter this world of permanent uncertainty. We can’t even make new plans. That would mean we know how our husband would be doing in 3 weeks. We don’t even know how he’ll be doing in 3 hours! Our schedules are constantly shifting based on how treatments go, upcoming tests or procedures, and how he is feeling.
We are plagued with all these questions in our head about the future and our partner.
Will he get better?
What if he gets worse?
Will the treatment work?
How bad will the side effects be?
What if the cancer comes back?
We feel like we are constantly waiting for someone to tell us how it’s all going to work out. But no one can tell us. No one can offer any certainties.
Fear, worry, anxiety… These emotions become our constant companions and we do anything and everything we can to avoid them.
Or we distract ourselves from them.
Evenings are often the worst.
It’s not always like this, but for periods of time there is constant uncertainty and it’s draining and emotionally exhausting.
Our First Oncologist Appointment
The very first appointment we had with the oncologist I remember seeing “Cancer Treatment Center” on the wall of the hallway. I still couldn’t believe this was the direction we were heading. In a way, it didn’t even seem real. Was this really our life now?
We sat down with one of only a few oncologists in our small town hospital. He told us my husband had Osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that originates in the bone. It was very unusual for adults to get. He couldn’t tell us why he got it or what his prognosis was. He then told us quite frankly that while he could recommend a standard aggressive treatment option, he was somewhat out of his league with this type of cancer. He gave us the contact information for a specialist in the San Francisco bay area and sent us on our way.
We left that appointment with more questions than answers. I remember so vividly wanting something solid, some hope or knowledge to hold on to. Instead we only got more questions and more uncertainty.
Later that day I ended up bawling to a complete stranger in the street.
Predictability Is Comforting
There is great comfort that comes from knowing what to expect, knowing how tomorrow is going to be and the next day after that. We like consistency, we like routine and schedule. We like predictability. We like to know what is going to happen next.
When we have routine, our brain does not have to work so hard.
Our brain dislikes uncertainty so much that even when we don’t like our situation, we often stay in it simply because it’s known and comfortable. To change would mean willingly embracing an unknown. That is often why people stay in jobs they don’t like, homes they don’t like, and even marriages they don’t like. We like and find comfort in the familiar.
Cancer throws all that out the window. Our lives become full of unknowns and uncertainties. It can be very upsetting. The constant sense of uncertainty can literally make us sick inside. It can keep us up at night. We might even develop physical aches and pains as a result of constant stress and worry about the future.
Making Friends With Uncertainty
I wish there were some easy fix to the discomfort of uncertainty. The truth is, there isn’t. When our spouse has cancer, we have to make friends with this uncomfortable feeling. When you learn to process the feelings that your uncertain life brings and understand the difference between what you can and can’t control, then you will have some tools to help you with all the unknowns you are sure to face.
Processing Our Emotions Along The Way
A lot of times, we don’t actually fear the event itself. What we fear is our reaction to it. We will say things like: “I don’t know if I can handle it” or “I don’t know how I will cope if he gets much worse.” What we really fear are the feelings we will have and the depth of them.
The first skill we need to practice is allowing and processing our “scary” emotions every time they come up.
Allowing and processing emotions is a conscious act. It requires you to be present and aware of your emotion. It requires you to resist the desire to distract yourself from it, but rather to notice it and observe it as if you were an outsider to your own body.
We can actually build the skill of feeling what we are feeling. We can get “good” at having awful feelings, simply by practicing feeling them. That is how we build our skill and confidence that we in fact CAN handle it. We practice that feeling, allowing it and processing it every time it comes up.The more we feel it, the more familiar and comfortable we will be with it so that it no longer scares us.
Ask yourself what is it you are feeling? Acknowledge that emotion and allow yourself to have it. You can say something like: This is just fear, I can handle fear. I can just feel it.
Do this every time it comes up. Resist the urge to distract or avoid this feeling with food, TV, or alcohol. That urge will be strong as we are not taught how to be present with our negative emotions. Every time you actually feel it, you will get better at it so that it will become familiar and less scary.
What We Can And Can’t Control
Truly our future is always uncertain, we just don’t really realize this on a daily basis. We have all been reminded of this fact with COVID 19. Few of us would have imagined a global pandemic which would affect every aspect of our lives. However, usually we are not reminded of the uncertainty of life all the time. It’s not “in our face”. That is what cancer does, it reminds us of the uncertainty in life. Often all the unknowns in our life become all that we see.
Our power comes from understanding the difference between what we can control and what we can’t. We can often confuse the two and focus too much on what is out of our control while ignoring completely what is in our control.
What We CAN’T Control
- We can’t control the world “out there.”
- We can’t control other people, what they do or say or their health.
- We can’t control our past.
What We CAN Control
- We CAN control how we think about the world and other people.
- We CAN control how we feel.
- We CAN control what we do and how we respond.
- We CAN control how we think about our past.
There is truly a lot we CAN control. Our power comes from realizing and focusing on what we can control in our lives. We can always decide how we want to think about all that is happening. We can decide how we want to show up when we get bad news. We can choose who we want to be in the face of this challenge.
- Take 5 minutes and write down all the thoughts you are having about the future. These are the ones keeping you up at night or what you tell your friends.
What will the test results show?
What if I can’t handle it?
His pain is getting worse.
- Now use the list above and cross out all the ones that are about other people or the world. Those are the things you CAN’T control. Just identify them so that when they come to your mind again, you can remind yourself you don’t have control over that and that’s OK.
- Find a mantra that will bring some comfort. Something that is within your control. Don’t tell yourself, he will get better or the treatment will work. Those are things you can’t control. Instead, focus on your own power.
I can handle this.
I will get through it.
I am stronger than I think.
I will be OK.
Nothing has gone wrong here.
I’m right where I need to be.
Making Peace With The Unknown
The truth simply is we don’t know what is going to happen. We never do in life, we just think we do. When we can accept that without argument, we can find a measure of peace.
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