Monday 24 January, 2022

How to Feel More Like a Person and Less like a Patient

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Going through cancer can mean a lot of things, depending on things like what kind of cancer diagnosis you have, where you live, or in what stage of life you find yourself in. But something that everyone who experiences cancer first-hand has in common is the introduction of a new word that our surroundings start describing us as: a patient. Psychologist Hana Jamali shares a few tips on how to deal with being defined as a patient and how to feel more like a person, more like yourself.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin “patiens,” from “patior,” meaning to suffer or to bear. The patient, in this language, is passive—bearing whatever suffering is necessary and tolerating patiently the interventions of the outside expert. This perspective tends to victimize people going through cancer because it puts them in the passenger seat of their own lives. Though there are aspects of cancer that we naturally cannot control and that may happen inevitably, there are many things that we can do when experiencing cancer that we can impact – how we treat ourselves and others, how to take care of our mental health, what we eat, and most of all, our perspective. 

It’s natural that the way we’re defined by our surroundings impacts the way others behave towards us. Being defined as a patient, for example, can cause people to act differently. For example, pity can be detected in their intonation when speaking to or about us. In addition, the term patient can cause people with a cancer diagnosis to feel victimized: defined by one diagnosis we have rather than who we are. Feeling empowered and being seen as ordinary people facing extraordinary events, rather than victims, can do so much good for mental health. 

So, when our realities change during and after cancer, what can we do to feel more like a person and less like a patient? Psychologist Hana Jamali shares a few tips on how to do so and what to focus on.

What we’ll cover in this blog
Learn how to deal with conflict within yourself
Define what is important to you
Practice acceptance
Communicate your needs and be honest with yourself and others
Find a sense of stability in order to feel more like yourself

Learn how to deal with conflict within yourself

Sometimes when going through cancer, people find a closer relationship with friends and family. Conversations are had and things are explored that perhaps wasn’t the case before. There is love, appreciation, and concern for you and that makes you feel loved. At the same time, these same people can begin to treat you as someone who has suddenly lost their autonomy, agency, and independence, which doesn’t feel good.

Hana explains that these two extremes are hard for our mind to grasp – on the one hand, you’re loved and appreciated and on the other hand you’ve lost your autonomy and are being pitied. You ask yourself, who am I in this? The co-existence of these extremes often causes a crisis because it’s confusing; there’s something about you that people appreciate and love, and on the other hand, they’re doing something that I don’t recognize in our relationship that didn’t exist prior to cancer. There’s a shift in dynamic you become aware of and creates scatter in your mind and feelings. 

In this conflict, Hana suggests working on openness towards yourself. Ask yourself: What are my needs? How can I map the things going on in me and around me? How can I test that towards my surroundings? Do I have safe places where I know I can turn to where people treat me the same as before or where I can be honest about how I’d like to be treated? Jot these things down to gain clarity. 

Define what is important to you

Pre-crisis, you’re going through life in whatever bubble you may find yourself in – teenage angst, mid-career stability, new parenthood or grandparenthood. Then, a crisis hits. People who go through a crisis are the first to ask existential and meaningful questions.

What makes us who we are? Who am I? What do I enjoy? What are my values? What do I want my life to be about? Am I doing meaningful things? 

If and when these questions come up, approach them with curiosity. Explore this within yourself and externally and become aware of what thoughts arise. What feelings do you experience? These experiences aren’t only physical, but emotional, psychological, and spiritual. 

If you want to go back to how things were before getting cancer, it’s probably because there’s a lot in your life that you valued and enjoyed pre-cancer. In this case, ask yourself “what are the things that I want to go back to and how will my journey there look like? Hana suggests mapping out your resources and involving your family and friends. Explain to them something along the lines of: “There are certain things that I’d like to continue to do. Some of the things I have my own capacity to be able to do. Others, I need support because I value it highly and would like to continue to be a part of it, even if it can’t be exactly how it used to be. It might look a bit different, but I would love it to be similar because I value it.” Flexibility to think of new ways to do things is key here – finding a new normal.

If you’re interested in starting anew, you may need to question your old values, how you’ve lived your life previously, what you want to change now, and what you want your new life to be about from here on out. A lot of these questions might not be able to be answered just like that. In some ways, it can be easier to go back to how things were, because it’s more concrete. When we question our values and what we want out of life, we introduce limbo and gray areas about who we are. Stepping into the unknown like that takes courage. As a psychologist, Hana explains that if you really truly want to explore your feelings, thoughts, values, purpose, and what you want to do with your life, being in limbo is going to be an inevitable part of your life, at least for a little while.

Practice acceptance

Often when we go through crises, life takes on a different shape. Some people may cope with this change temporarily with the intent of getting back to where they were. Others may want to explore how this experience is impacting who they’re becoming. Either way, Hana argues that crises change us, and it’s learning to find acceptance for our lives that are filled with experiences that inevitably impact us.

Hana explains that for a lot of people who hear the word acceptance, they associate it with passivity – an “I just need to deal with it” mindset. But that’s not what acceptance is. Acceptance is about exploring what crises or change does to you and allow it to happen. Acceptance is a verb. It can be a really painful journey, so it’s not about dealing with it. Dealing with it is simply saying “this is the issue, and I need to understand that that issue is going to be a part of my life.” On the contrary, real acceptance is about diving into the issue, exploring it, seeing what it does to you, what happens, how it feels, what thoughts it elicits. Once you can accept what is happening to you, your thoughts and feelings and potentially weird behaviors, then you’re really getting there.

Keep in mind, acceptance in this form doesn’t mean the acceptance of cancer or a changing identity, but acceptance of the present – letting yourself experience what’s happening and allow yourself to feel what you feel instead of resisting it. Diving into your fears and behaviors takes a lot of courage. And sometimes, you don’t have the courage or energy to dive in, and that’s part of acceptance too – to say, you know what, this is too painful right now, and I can’t dive in. But, I’m aware that it’s hard, and that’s part of the process too.

Lastly, it’s unhelpful to think that you can ignore the experience of a crisis. Even if you want to and can go back to how things were, you can’t close your eyes, erase the experience of going through cancer, and return to how things were. 

Tips from Psychologist Hana Jamali on how to deal with a mental cancer hangover

Communicate your needs and be honest with yourself and others

Feeling less like a patient and more like a person has a lot to do with how we handle conflict within ourselves (see point one) When you’re getting different reactions from friends or family and haven’t cleared up how you feel internally, it’s hard to know how to respond to those reactions because you’re not clear about what you want and how to approach cancer. 

What often happens is you try to create a sense of normality or pretend that nothing particular is happening. This tendency comes from our fear of being alienated from our groups. It goes back to our biological needs and survival – we need the assurance that we’re still part of the group. But when we try to act normal amidst a crisis, it can come across as false and doesn’t allow for meaningful conversation. You have every right to be treated normally and be accepted, but pretending nothing is happening isn’t normal, and doesn’t ease the situation. 

Instead, it can help to be open and have the courage to be vulnerable about what you’re going through. Hana suggests something along the lines of: “I’m really struggling with normality – I want things to be normal and at the same time I have cancer and I feel people are treating me differently. I’m in this phase of limbo.” Your honesty is necessary to free others to be normal around you, and helps you keep in touch with yourself – being substance instead of fading behind a mask of “everything’s fine.” 

Then, make sure to communicate what it is you need. Your loved ones may not know if invitations are overwhelming or disappointing to you. They want to give you the space you need, but surround you at the same time, and it’s hard to guess when you need what. Help people help you by explaining that you’d still like to be invited to things, for example, even if that means perhaps having to decline half the time. Show them that it makes you feel happy when you’re included. This way, people feel at ease and not like they’re stepping over your boundaries. 

Find a sense of stability in order to feel more like yourself

Hana explains that our sense of normality is different depending on who you are. For some people, feeling more like themselves may be something tangible in the here and now; for example, how we look. This is why losing hair can be difficult because how we look is part of our identity. Some may feel that looking in a specific way gives a sense of stability or safety. Most things are about a sense of safety or knowing where or who we are. For others, stability might come in the shape of a role. For example, “I’m a mother, and being able to play with my kids outside is who I am. If that’s taken away, my sense of normality is taken away from me.” For a third person, it may be playing tennis, bathing, painting, or any activity that defines normality for them. 

It’s necessary to have these concrete, routine things to lean on to gain stability, crisis or not. But, when you lose those tangible things, it throws people into that limbo we were talking about earlier. If we don’t have that, an identity crisis comes knocking on our door and how are we going to handle that?

One thing about survival is just that – clinging on to things that you know will give you a sense of stability. When we reach a certain level of stability, it allows us to be courageous and flexible which are vital skills when going through a crisis.

If you can’t lean on what you could before cancer, see what you can replace it with. For some people, it may be that they’ve lost complete control over routines and can’t function. Start there – get sleep, eat, and into a routine that allows you to function. If you don’t have that, there’s no way your mind is going to be able to sort the feelings and thoughts in your mind and you won’t be able to develop if you don’t have those basics in place. 

After finding stability, you have the capacity to build on that sense of personhood and what you want next. Is it going back to life the way it was or finding the opportunity to develop something new? Perhaps it’s a mix of both – reflect on what you had, what you want to keep, what you want to scrap. And if you’re exploring something new and think that it’s not for you, that’s fine! Play with these things and be flexible. Train your openness towards yourself and your acceptance towards yourself. In doing so, you regain a sense of agency, feel more like yourself and less like a patient. 

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