Monday 28 June, 2021

Physical Wellbeing & Cancer: Coping with Expectations

“I just want to feel like myself again” or “I miss the old me.” Have these kinds of thoughts crossed your mind during or after your experience with cancer? They reflect the expectations we have for ourselves, whether that’s during cancer treatment, our hopes through recovery or life with cancer. This week, we’re diving into how to cope with expectations we – or others – set for our physical wellbeing during our cancer experience.

What we’ll cover in this blog
Expectations of what cancer is or will be like
No right way to have cancer
Expectations on exercise when experiencing cancer
Tips to cope with high expectations on our physical wellbeing

Expectations of what cancer is or will be like

After being diagnosed with cancer, we can’t help but imagine what the next part of our lives is going to look like. Without realizing it, you probably have expectations about how it is all going to go down – even if those expectations are knowing that you can’t really know what to expect.

We’ve seen TV shows and movies where cancer is portrayed in certain ways. We’ve heard stories of our friend’s neighbour’s daughter who had cancer or seen that mom at school with no hair and made assumptions about what they’re going through. You may have felt sorry for them, had empathy for them or thought ‘thank goodness that isn’t me or anyone I know.’

Then it happens to you. Will you be the person without hair at your child’s school, the one your friends talk about to their neighbours? It can feel like many people are making assumptions about what you’re going through from something they’ve seen or heard about cancer, and they may very well be making assumptions. It’s not going to be easy.

You may overthink your situation, which is completely normal, and it’ll feel even harder knowing that others will be thinking and talking about you too. So, you may decide that you’ll be different, you are going to get through treatment and beat cancer and make it look easy too! Because you’re you, and you aren’t like all those other people with cancer. You expect that it’ll be different for you.

However well-intended this mindset may be for you, these expectations can be tough to live up to for a lot of people. It’s human nature to want to stay the same, to preserve who we are – it’s our comfort zone and we want to know what to expect. But the reality is that cancer will change you and how you live your life, even if only for a little while. For most of us, it’ll last much longer than we ever could have anticipated.

There is no “right” way to have cancer

The first thing to remember is that there is no right way to have cancer. Every single person goes into a diagnosis with unique circumstances that will affect how they perceive their experience and how they recover. Some will take time away, rest, and keep to themselves. Others will use their story to amplify awareness and use their situation to motivate and inspire the masses. Some may leave social media while others will post every day. Some will share their stories on multiple platforms, and some will stick to the War on Cancer app where there’s a community of people who know exactly what you’re going through. 

Expectations on exercise when experiencing cancer

In the same way that everyone will manage their cancer differently, so too is the approach when it comes to exercise during and after cancer. Some will continue to exercise, and some won’t be able to get out of bed. Some will walk every day attached to portable IV bags and chemo treatments, while others are so uncomfortable from radiation burns they won’t be able to move in clothes without it hurting their skin. Some will recover faster than they’d ever expect, and make it look like nothing happened, while others will live with chronic fatigue and pain for years or the rest of their life. Some will have an invisible cancer – which can be incredibly difficult in some ways and a relief in others, while others will have body parts amputated, operated on, or changed permanently. It’s incredible how different every single experience can be. 

Because of this, it’s hard to set expectations for ourselves. If cancer is so different for everyone, how can you know what will work for you? How can you know what to do to make sure you come out of cancer the same? How do we make sure it goes the way we expect?

We’re generally very rational, and we know that it isn’t fair to assume that getting back the ‘old’ version of ourselves is something that can happen. Yet, we tend to have these expectations anyways, even if we never say it out loud. 

Why do we hold on to the ‘old’ us and use it as a goal to strive for? It’s unrealistic to assume you can experience cancer – anything, really – and come out the other side untouched. Having this kind of expectation can harm our mental and physical wellbeing.

But, expectations aren’t all bad and having expectations on ourself about how to get through treatment or life after cancer can be a helpful way to get us through the really hard parts and push through. They help remind us that harder parts of treatment are temporary, and once we get through these challenges there is something lighter on the other side. Hope and optimism are key to finding happiness even during something that most people would consider one of the scariest experiences. If we see an end goal and have something to work for and strive for, it will infuse meaning and purpose into everything we experience. Our expectations help use cope, and endure, amidst the circumstances.

Tips to cope with high expectations on our physical wellbeing during cancer

Here are a few tips on how to deal with expectations on our physical wellbeing, and set your own, that can help you cope with life with cancer.

Take it easy on yourself

We need to start by cutting ourselves some slack, and take the pressure off of ourselves to get through cancer the way we think we should – or the way we feel others might think we should. Do your best to remember that there is no right way, and everyone is different and need different things.

Accept support from others

Reaching out to people and friends who have been through it before you, are going through it with you and being there for those who will be going through it after you is important. Communication and support is one of the strongest ways to feel connected and understood, which is critical for our mental and physical wellbeing. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that can help you push through setbacks and make the successes even sweeter.

Focus on what you can control

And understand that the things you can’t control will feel easier if you let go and accept what is. Strive for little wins on a weekly basis and before you know it you’ll look back and realize you’ve made a lot of progress. Look at the big picture.

Try something new

You might think you should be able to exercise like you did before in a certain timeframe, but maybe it’s not possible. This kind of mindset can be discouraging. Instead, be curious and explore something new. Do something completely different than you’ve ever done before like walking in natural locations you’ve never discovered, taking up swimming or aqua aerobics or find a low impact dance class. When you try something totally different you’ll have nothing to compare it to so expectations won’t really exist and the positive impact on your mental health will be immeasurable.

Practice mindfulness

You’ve probably heard this a lot in the cancer circle, and that’s because it is something that can be very effective and beneficial. When you practice mindfulness on a regular basis (start with a few minutes a day and eventually aim for 20 minutes a day or more), you can become more in tune with what you’re telling yourself on a regular basis. How we talk to ourselves and being able to recognize our thought patterns can be a great way to alter our expectations and not let them get the best of us. Here are 3 ways to improve your mental health.

Write your story

The simple act of writing out your story and your experience can be very therapeutic. If you’re comfortable, share your story. Whether you decide to let anyone ever see it or not, having it all in one place, in your own words, will help you release any emotions you’ve been holding on to and make it easier to accept and move forward. It also allows you to be the author of your life, which gives you ownership and a sense of control. This is a powerful way to really see how far you’ve come, and show you how much you’ve conquered. When we’re living it and fighting cancer we don’t have much time to give ourselves the credit we deserve in what we’ve overcome. Once you see it on paper (or on a screen), your perspective shifts.

Practice seeing cancer as an experience that can grow you

Sure, maybe you can’t do everything you could do before. Maybe you’re a little more aware of what can go wrong – but you’re likely also very aware of what can go right. For many of us, a lot of things had to go right in order to be where we are today, and we don’t focus on that nearly as much! 

The fact that we could have had intense surgeries, taken harsh medical treatments, survived side effects and complications, been radiated by what we’d consider dangerous and damaging machines, scanned countless times and survived the insane ups and downs of getting bad news followed by good news, followed by bad news, followed by good… it’s a lot for anyone to handle. 

So how can we begin to learn to see cancer as a way to grow? Perspective, gratitude, and an awareness about life is something that only those who’ve been told ‘you have cancer’ can understand. What was important before cancer may not be as important after cancer, and other things that were important before cancer may have become more important than ever, or not important at all. These are all learnings that tune us into ourselves – what we value, how we want to live, and most importantly, who we want to become. 

Accept that your expectations can change

Finally, make sure to remember perhaps the most important aspect of expectations: they can always change. And that’s totally allowed. In fact, it’s good if they do – it means you’re letting your life take shape, and shape you.

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