crystal-ball

In June 2017, I received news from my physician containing the dreaded “C” word. I was utterly devastated, and my family, friends and then significant other were in complete shock. My world turned upside down in mere seconds.

After the dust settled, I felt like I must have done something horribly wrong with my life to deserve a lung cancer diagnosis. I was a light smoker in college more than 20 years ago but prior to diagnosis was physically fit, ate healthy foods, rarely drank alcohol, and had recently taken up meditation and spiritual exploration. How could I have cancer?

Now that I’ve lived with disease for almost two years, my perspective and understanding has expanded. I didn’t do anything wrong—no one deserves cancer. I learned to take the layman’s opinion with a grain of salt and decided to help reverse the stigma that accompanies a lung cancer diagnosis. Most importantly, I discovered how crucial it was to release all the feelings and emotions that arose because of my diagnosis. Recognition was the first step, but equally important to me was letting go of the anger, frustration, sadness, helplessness and the wide range of other nuanced emotions that I was feeling.

What does that mean exactly, releasing emotions?

“People typically aren’t used to lovingly processing their emotions,” said Rosemary Shearer, RN and board-certified coach in the Philadelphia, Penn., area. “You are not crazy. Be gentle with yourself because there is a high probability that you are in shock” after receiving a critical health diagnosis. She suggests that patients find a trusted friend, family member, counselor or therapist to share feelings and emotions with. This might even be someone a patient is currently working with, like a physical or speech therapist that can get the ball rolling and make a referral. “Take a step, because the way out is the way through. Seek help to move forward, because it is so important.”

Anne Phillips, a 46-year-old mother of two from Denver, Colo., who was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in 2015, admits it took a long time to come to terms with her new life. “I lived in a state of panic and anxiety like a deer in the headlights for seven months. That’s how long it took me,” said Phillips. Her advice for getting through? “Saying ‘just breathe’ may sound stupid and ironic but give yourself a minute” to process what you’re experiencing. “It’s not your duty to shoulder everyone else’s terror. Most of what people ask is from a good place or from a place of curiosity, but it’s irrelevant what other people say because they are usually saying it for themselves. I’m not going to let anyone control my feelings. I want to be with my kids, and I want to forget some days. I’m still alive, and we have had great memories in the last four years.”

Striving for a positive outlook despite the diagnosis is also important, Shearer says. “It’s difficult to move forward if you’re surrounded by negative people,” and she encourages patients to look for the positive in even the smallest victories. Phillips also recommends joining in-person or online support groups when and if a patient feels drawn to that kind of connection. 

Personally, I believe it’s critical to recognize your emotions, express them in some way (through talk therapy, writing, or artistic expression) and then let those emotions go. Don’t hold on to them or stuff them down because you are afraid to feel—release these feelings and emotions lovingly. Recently, I came across an interesting quote from a doctor and spiritual guru that wraps up my emotional journey over the past two years, “The body is designed to release emotions, so let your body do that when the emotions come up.”

-Laura Levaas

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