Finding Your Way Through Cancer

By Andrew Kneier, PhD

The title of my book, Finding Your Way through Cancer, speaks to the journey a person begins as soon as the worry enters one’s mind—the worry that something is wrong and that it could be cancer.

When you learn definitively that you have cancer, the journey becomes more real and thrusts you into an unpredictable and disquieting world. There are many ups and downs along the way, and you face many decisions about what to do and how to feel. At several junctions, there is more than one path to follow—regarding your attitude or approach, ways of resolving trials and dilemmas that arise, and ways of mentally defining what you need from loved ones and what they need from you.

There are many means of coping with suffering, and it is important to do so in a way that captures your inner strength while also honoring your emotional needs. Through all of this, the paths that are right for you may not be readily apparent. I wrote this book with the hope of helping you find these paths—the ones that respect your emotions and call forth the best in you.

The book is largely about the emotions that cancer evokes and how they are always personal and individual because of what they mean and what they feel like to you. What sorrow feels like, for example, flows from what specifically you are sorry about, and that can be linked to your experiences of sorrow in the past.

If a person starts with her sorrow and delves into it to discover what’s there, her self-understanding may be enhanced and she will be better equipped to obtain comfort and support that are relevant to her personal experience. In the book I give case examples to illustrate these points, one of which is excerpted below, from chapter 3, “Learning from Your Emotions.”

Diana and Breast Cancer

Diana was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was forty-two. She was happily married but had no children. She had an MBA degree and worked for a marketing firm. More than anything else, her diagnosis made her profoundly sad, and this sadness had some distinctive features that stemmed from her personal history.

To start, her diagnosis felt like a comeuppance because when she was growing up her four siblings had all been jealous of her looks and intelligence. She felt guilty about these positive traits because they made her siblings feel bad about themselves. Although she tried not to flaunt these traits or take advantage of them, she nonetheless thought they enhanced her success in life. She thought her siblings might even be pleased about her diagnosis because it cut her down to size. She hated this thought, but there it was.

Next, she felt she was not supposed to cry, and this contributed greatly to her sorrow. She acted as though it was her job to take care of the emotions of others; she therefore suppressed her own emotions and put up a strong front. This sense of responsibility stemmed from the message conveyed by her father, throughout her childhood, that she should not dress in a cute manner or talk about her good grades because it would make her siblings feel bad. (I don’t know whether her father actually said such things, but this was her memory and her conclusions.)

It seemed to Diana there was no way she could be comforted. For her, comfort did not seem to exist. This greatly increased her sadness. The more I learned about her history, the more it made sense. All through her childhood, she had felt she could not take pleasure from being pretty or smart. This seemed very unfair to her, and it seemed no one knew and no one cared. No friend or relative gave her a hug and whispered in her ear that they understood; no one was there to comfort her in this way.

Finally, Diana felt sad because she was childless—but it was more complicated than that. Before her diagnosis, she was sad that she had no children; afterward, however, she was relieved that she had no children to leave alone with her husband if she died. “My being a mother, it wasn’t meant to be,” she said. “It’s better this way.” But this idea made her feel all the more sad. It’s a very sad theory—the idea that she was somehow fated to remain childless and die young.

Diana’s sadness was complicated and deepened by all these underlying meanings. It’s sad enough to have breast cancer when you are only forty-two. It’s all the more sad to think you deserve to be knocked down to size, that you have to bury your true feelings, that you cannot be comforted because no one understands, and that your infertility has turned out to be “for the best.” Yet all these thoughts were embedded in her sorrow, woven through it like a tapestry that buried her with its colossal weight. Understanding these influences was the first step to unraveling her personal tapestry of sorrow.

Diana’s story shows the impact of one’s personal history on the subtle meanings and the feeling tone of current emotions. Think about how this applies to you because your emotions illustrate the same point. We do not experience emotions in a historical vacuum. Whatever emotions you experience have a history, and they carry this history into the present. Consider an emotion caused by your illness and ask yourself: What does this tell me? You might think of it as a door that opens to a long and complex personal history. If you can, challenge yourself to open that door and see where it leads.

To the extent that your own past has been a painful one, following the path of your emotional history could lead back to painful memories and experiences. You might ask yourself, Why go back and uncover all the garbage back there? Your past is not garbage; it is part of your life story. If there was a sad or painful chapter in your life, it will color the emotions you have now in response to your illness. Diana had emotions that were contaminated by her past, as emotions often are. By understanding these connections, she realized that her emotions became more fitting or appropriate to her current life situation. This could be true for you as well. Your own emotional history could be a gold mine for you. Dig there and see what you discover.

Reprinted with permission from Finding Your Way Through Cancer: An Expert Cancer Psychologist Helps Patients and Survivors Face the Challenges of Illness. Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Kneier, PhD, Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, a division of the Crown Publishing Group, Berkeley, CA.