Dr. Alastair Cunningham vividly remembers the day he was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer at age 47 and given a one-in-three chance of survival. Despite having counselled hundreds of cancer patients in his practice, “my reaction was shock,” he says. "I had fear, anxiety. The worst thing was: ‘How am I going to tell my wife?’"
Not everyone can head to an ashram for three months when they receive a cancer diagnosis, admits Cunningham. But that’s exactly what he did after treatment. He credits his unusual choice with helping him heal mentally.
The stay at the B.C.- based ashram forced Cunningham, a scientist and psychologist, to confront his anxiety. Through meditation, prayer, yoga and putting thoughts to paper, Cunningham says he examined how he viewed life. And with his cancer in remission, he gained a spiritual awareness, one that has sustained him since that daunting diagnosis back in 1997.
“The most common first reaction to getting cancer is shock and fear,” says Dr. Andrew Matthew, staff psychologist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. “It’s the deer-in-the-headlights-effect – sheer disbelief,” says Matthew, adding it’s usually followed by sadness, helplessness, anger and anxiety. “There are few things more isolating than this experience.”
But the first step, after the shock has worn off, is to reclaim some control. Matthew advises:
1. Rally your team
“Understand that you’re not the only one affected,” says Matthew, “Your wife, kids, and friends are too. Take on the disease as a mutual problem and approach it as a team.” Involving family and friends can ensure key information about diagnosis or treatments isn’t missed when you’re not processing data too well, emotional support is omnipresent and the family or friend you’ve entrusted doesn’t feel like they’re outside of your experience – a stressful place to be.
2. Know survival is an option
Skip the frightening tales on the Internet, says Matthew, adding that the majority are from people with very daunting cancer diagnoses – and not from the larger group of cancer survivors. In 60 years, he says the survival rate has gone from 1 in 5 to 3 in 5 due to advances in screening and treatment. He says to find out your odds of survival from a physician and “gather the info you need to establish a sense of future.”
3. Take charge of your treatment plan
Participate actively in the treatment process, says Matthew. That means getting a second opinion of your pathology results (this can often be done at the same hospital) and your treatment plan, be it surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or another procedure. You want to ensure you’re making the best decision possible, and also regain a sense of control. Find out whether your workplace health benefits cover a medical consultation service such as Best Doctors.®
4. Seek support
“Many find speaking to someone who has been through a parallel experience comforting and some people find clinical support is helpful when their ability to cope may be compromised,” says Patti Morris, executive director of the Calgary branch of Wellspring, a network of cancer support centres across Canada. To help you find fellow survivors or to get counselling, contact support groups such as Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada, Wellspring, or the Canadian Cancer Society. There are also numerous survivor forums and blogs where you can chat with others or leave messages.
5. Take a mind break
Sure, perhaps you’re not ready for physical activity in the days following a cancer diagnosis. But during or after treatment, taking up deep-breathing exercises, tai chi, meditation or yoga can be a great way of helping manage nausea, fatigue and anxiety,” says Matthew. As well, these mind-body exercises can help you sleep, which is critical when you’re in recovery. Heading outside can also be helpful, says Morris, “Nature can be of great benefit – we have horticulture programs, hiking, photography – all intended to allow people to be present with nature.”
For Cunningham, cancer has proven to be an educational and oddly rewarding experience. He channelled his experience with cancer into The Healing Journey a free program that focuses on self-healing, meditation and finding one’s inner strength. It can be downloaded and is offered in an in-person format at Wellspring and at cancer hospitals such as Princess Margaret in Toronto.
“Medical help is your first line of defence,” he says. “Your second line of defence is helping yourself.”