Kayoll Gyan, PhD, RN, is a nurse scientist in medical oncology and the associate director of the Phyllis F. Cantor Center for Research in Nursing and Patient Care Services at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She is also a member of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her program of research focuses on cervical cancer prevention among Black women, with a specific focus on social-cultural determinants of health, such as social support and religion and spirituality.
When people discuss recovering from cancer, the first thing that is usually discussed is the physical healing timeline. Discussions about the stage of the cancer and the treatment plan can easily dominate early conversations between patients and their doctors. Unfortunately, the psychological and spiritual healing that must also occur during your recovery may be omitted or overlooked.
Over my 7 months of active cancer treatment, I realized that my healing from breast cancer would be a healing journey and that it was not going to follow a preset timeline. My healing journey would of course include physical healing from the process of ridding my body of cancer cells. But, it would also include psychological healing from the emotional distress I experienced. And I would also need spiritual healing from the toll of a cancer diagnosis at 33 years of age.
Following my unique healing timeline
The journey to being healed from cancer does not follow a fixed timeline. Oncologists use the best available scientific evidence to guide them in their treatment recommendations, with the hope that the cancer responds. As people with cancer, we try to tolerate treatment side effects and not veer away from our treatment plan out of fear that any alteration in course may mean the treatment will not work or that we may experience a recurrence.
As I was going through chemotherapy, I wanted to closely follow my recommended treatment course. However, after 7 rounds of treatment, I developed neuropathy in my hands and feet. I was concerned that getting the final infusion would mean the neuropathy would become permanent. Suddenly, my primary concern was about my quality of life post-treatment and whether I could live the life I envisioned if the neuropathy was permanent.
After much prayer and discussion with my social support members and oncologist, I decided not to do the final infusion. The tumor had already shrunk significantly, and my planned mastectomy would remove what remained. The choice to not have my final infusion was a major decision for me. At times, I would be filled with fear and “what if” questions. Through self-reflection and prayer, I realized that each person’s healing journey is different. As long as I was at peace with my decision, I had faith that everything else would work out in my favor.
Managing setbacks in your healing journey
Interruptions to my treatment plan affected my emotional and spiritual self. I knew that tending to my emotional and spiritual healing was vital to being able to endure my cancer treatment.
Whenever I felt emotional and spiritual distress during my healing journey, I found these tools were helpful for managing my distress.
1: Journaling. Early in my cancer treatment, my mentor, Dr. Jill B. Hamilton, told me to keep a journal of my experience. She said that I didn’t have to write in it every day—only when I had to something on my mind. I am so glad that I took her advice. Journaling became the outlet for me to wrestle with my thoughts as I processed pressing questions. For example, “How did I come to be diagnosed with breast cancer at 33 years old? What did I do wrong for this to happen? Should I have kept a stricter diet? Should I get a double mastectomy or single?”
If a thought came to mind that I just couldn’t shake, I wrote it down in my journal. Journaling helped me find clarity by putting my thoughts down in a place where I could visualize them, leave them, and return to them when I was in a better mental space to address them.
Now that I have completed my active treatment phase, I often read my journal and am reminded of how far I have come since first being diagnosed. Journaling offered me an opportunity to reflect on my experience, to be proud of myself for enduring so much, and to be thankful for where I am today.
2: Prayer. As an Afro-Caribbean woman raised in the church with my mother and grandmother, prayer was something instilled in me from a young age. During my cancer treatment, I depended so much on prayer as a way of coping with the anxiety and fear I experienced. Prayer was my go-to when I expected my treatment plan to go one way and a complication would delay my treatment course. Prayer gave me a safe place to reflect on how far I had come with my healing and to share my hopes, fears, and anxieties with God. In return, I would receive peace of mind from knowing that God was on my side.
3: Protecting my peace. In my role as a nurse scientist, I learned to search the scientific literature for answers to questions. But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and became a patient, I could no longer do that. Reading scientific literature was too stressful. I had to screen the information that I let into my mind and my heart to lower my anxiety and protect my peace.
I protected my peace by only taking in information from my medical team. This meant no Dr. Google and no Mr. PubMed. During my healing, I didn’t need the statistics or the doom and gloom of others’ stories. What I needed was faith, strength, and an optimistic perspective. And for me, I could only get that from God. So, I turned to the Bible, I listened to music, and I surrounded myself with things that built me up emotionally, spiritually, and physically. For example, I created a cancer playlist of songs that were uplifting. On my way to each appointment, I listened to those songs the entire way. By the time I arrived at the appointment, I was ready to tackle any prescribed treatment.
4: Not isolating myself. For young women diagnosed with cancer, this life is full of so many challenges. Young women diagnosed with cancer may isolate themselves for fear of being treated differently, for feeling like a burden to their family and friends, or for not wanting such a private experience to be made public. Wherever you can, let someone in your inner circle know about your cancer diagnosis. Give your family and friends the opportunity to support you during what may be the most difficult experience of your life up to that point. Resist the urge to go through your cancer experience alone.
No matter what stage you are at in your healing, know that doing your best for that day is enough. There is no right or wrong way to experience your healing. Each person’s cancer experience is a unique one. While focusing on your physical healing, be sure to nurture your emotional and spiritual healing, as well, because they all feed into each other.
Implementing strategies to build yourself up emotionally and spiritually can help you to endure the physical aspects of your treatment. Be honest with your care team about your needs and how they can best support you. And, when you experience setbacks in your healing timeline, surround yourself with words, people, and things that give you hope and build your faith in being healed from cancer.
The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.