After an agonizing time of waiting, we are asked finally to do a biopsy (in case of tumors). This is the only test that gives 100% certainty, but it is also the most expensive one. As we leave the doctor’s office after, the dreaded words: “It is Cancer!” still ring in our ears. But many people hear something different – they hear “Death is coming now!”
Now comes the time when we have to tell our friends and family that all plans are off, that we have a bigger challenge to deal with. Friends and family have different reactions to our news. In some cases, they do not really know how to deal with it. They would like to help but do not know how, so they withdraw. Some are shaken and offer not only their condolences but also wonderful ongoing support. But some situations become very difficult.
At one of the workshops for cancer patients, I heard the following: I have stage four cancer but so far, I feel okay. The doctors told me they cannot do anything for me, but I do not feel sick, and apart from a few symptoms, my life would be normal. Life would be as before if I didn’t have to deal with people around me. My family and friends treat me as if I was going to die tomorrow. Friends invite me to the parties or dinners where they talk openly about farewells and say, “perhaps this is the last time we will meet.” Or they call and talk to me as if there was no tomorrow. “Have you planned your funeral? Have you made a will?” With family members, I have to deal with their emotions and their fear of losing me! It feels like in addition to taking care of my kids I have to take care of everyone around me and their emotions. I am really tired of that!
I think the subject of how diagnosis impacts the social circle of the patient might be good material for another blog or a book. Living with someone or taking care of someone who has stage four cancer (regarded as terminal) is challenging and brings many difficult emotions and situations. This series of blogs, however, is limited to the patient’s perspective.
Coming back to the subject of diagnosis, the dread became the reality and many people deal with it by denial. Such was my case. Luckily, I had to wait only one week for the diagnosis, so I was spared a long time of anxiety. When I heard the confirmation, I felt myself facing a huge challenge and the tremendous energy rushing through me with the thought – OK, let’s see who wins! At the same time, I had already planned six months of my life with trips to Europe and Trinidad and nothing was going to stop me! I felt invincible…
… little did I know…
The time between “suspicion of…” and the final diagnosis is one of the most difficult during the cancer journey. Our so far normal life is disrupted by the unexpected possibility of “what if…?” As we go from test to test the anxiety grows exponentially. This uncertainty may last a week or several weeks. We usually cope with this sudden stress by going into denial, “not thinking about it; not worrying about it.” But even then, the voice in the back of our head “what if…?” gets louder and louder. And these few weeks feel like years – time moves so painfully slowly.
This is where yoga therapy shines and can be a great help for anyone dealing with emotional tension, fear, often anger and high levels of stress brought on by the prolonged process of diagnosis and uncertain future prospects.
A skillfully conducted asana class can also become a meditative practice. It will bring relief to the tensed body and frightened busy mind. Connecting to your breath and slowing it down will also slow thoughts running here and there. It may help with sleep patterns, which are often disrupted.
There are pranayama (breathing) techniques, which are distinctively for activating our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS – relaxation of all body systems) and calming down the sympathetic nervous system (SNS – fight or flight mode). The ability to manage our autonomous nervous system to a certain degree is perhaps one of the most important gifts that yoga therapy can give to us. According to traditional medicine, this is something we have no control over. And yet a body of research confirms that by using yogic techniques skillfully on a daily basis we are actually able to influence the balance of our autonomous nervous system.
Techniques like guided meditation, yoga nidra, and chanting have a deep healing impact on all levels of human existence. Research shows that by using these techniques over time we can change our brains on the physical and functional levels. We can become calm and collected while standing in the eye of the storm.
A few sessions with a yoga therapist hopefully will result in building a daily yoga practice geared specifically to help us deal with the great challenges we meet at the beginning of the journey. We often need to make decisions with very little information. These decisions are difficult to make in the first place and a lot of conflicting pressures from the family, friends, and doctors only add to the stress level. But throughout the diagnosis process, we can use yoga therapy tools to bring us internally to the place from where we can act in a rational and calm way to choose the best option possible, despite anxiety, fear, and confusion.