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By Jennifer R. Levin, PhD
Life is full of challenges and pain, much of which we cannot control. For many women diagnosed with cancer, the experience is perhaps one of the most traumatic events they will encounter. Cancer is a horrific, life-altering and life-threatening experience. The disease not only threatens our existence and our identity, but it can result in periods of darkness and despair. Undoubtedly, cancer changes and challenges our lives and the lives of our loved ones. But in spite of the devastation, and as ironic as it may seem, we can find beauty in the trauma of the cancer experience.
Cancer assaults our bodies as well as our emotional wellbeing, and treatment for the disease is both physically and mentally traumatic. Treatment scars us: body, mind, family and lifestyle. It leaves us feeling sick, discouraged, exhausted, and disfigured. To survive cancer and its treatment is to have coped with bodily and emotional vulnerability, and the struggle between our vulnerability and coping mechanisms redefines our essence and our character. New values and standards emerge. And with time, love, and nurturing it is possible to gain new insights, outlooks and opportunities for growth from the depths of much despair.
Recently, psychologists began to recognize that people who had experienced shocking and traumatic life situations such as war, sexual assault, illness, or tragic accidents were experiencing growth from their trauma. In 1996 Drs. Tedeschi and Calhoun developed the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) to better understand trauma’s role in personal growth. They determined that posttraumatic growth occurs when individuals who experience an ordeal of suffering and distress are later able to report better functioning and positive changes as a result of having endured a trauma. Posttraumatic growth is most notable in the areas of relating to others, new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and an appreciation of life. Calhoun & Tedeschi and subsequent researchers were also able to determine that passage of time from the trauma, the resolution of consequences of the trauma, social support, and certain other characteristics and activities facilitate posttraumatic growth.
While growth is not guaranteed, it may be a long time coming. Finding gold amidst a pile of dark rubble can be a daunting and time-consuming task, and the energy to search for personal treasure may be in short supply. Yet as hard as it may be, each day that we continue our journey we inevitably reflect upon our circumstances. And it is within those reflective moments of sorting and questioning that we arrive at trauma’s gift: a new level of awareness and understanding.
Posttraumatic growth from cancer
A small body of research has focused on posttraumatic growth specific to the breast cancer experience. The growth we experience from cancer is not from the cancer but rather from the experience of suffering and coping with the changes and challenges cancer brings forth. Women who have participated in research studies and/or shared their stories most commonly report that the cancer experience has opened them to finding: new priorities in life; stronger faith in God; new awareness of self; new awareness of health; new and improved relationships with others; and the desire to share and help others.
When we are in the midst of pain and struggle it may be impossible to see the seeds of positive changes that are beginning to germinate. One way to identify or measure personal growth is to recall our outlook and attitudes prior to our cancer experience. We might ask ourselves and our loved ones to comment on our ideals, attitudes and behavior patterns. What values have governed our life? What were our predominant personality traits? What was our experience with happiness? How did we present ourselves to the world? What was beautiful in our life? Once we develop a clear picture of who we were before cancer, we can begin to look for growth and change by assessing the person we have become. How has cancer changed the philosophy of our life? In what ways have we grown? What personal attributes have changed? What have we learned from loss? Can we identify any silver linings in the cloud of our cancer experience?
Acknowledging our accomplishments
Many people will walk this earth oblivious of the beauty surrounding them. Some will remain shortsighted, stuck or stagnant having no reason to look within themselves for meaning or outward to see the big picture. Having walked in the darkness of cancer and treatment and having coped have changed our life’s journey. The cancer experience has forced us to ask the tough questions and has rewarded us in ways we may not be capable of absorbing quite yet. We have shown extraordinary courage, strength and creativity to manage and endure the cancer ordeal. Now we must recognize our newfound strength and appreciate our perseverance. This is where the beauty lies; it is found in our growth and our new level of awareness. We are best served by rejoicing in the gifts revealed to us: the gifts of hope; new friendships; compassion; life’s big lessons and appreciation of the little things; time to live; the love, support and inspiration of others; new opportunities; and the joy of each new day.
In the aftermath of our trauma we seek and find acceptance or resolution. We have prevailed and there is beauty in our prevailing. Our body and spirit long for peace and serenity from our ordeal, and by discovering the calm moments of respite within the storm we can glimpse moments of beauty, and we have prevailed. Perhaps our faith has seen us through the darkness and we can allow ourselves to feel and express our heartfelt gratitude to all who have inspired us and eased our way. And in those beautiful expressions of faith, soul-searching and gratitude, we have prevailed.
I Will Prevail Wellness Coaching for Women with Cancer encourages compassionate change and personal growth. We encourage a breaking-away from the societal image of perfection, and we encourage a kinder standard of self-acceptance. A personal success coach encourages you to find and use your hidden reservoirs of strength as you reevaluate your goals in a safe and accepting environment.
Dr. Levin has over 15 years experience assisting women and families faced with breast cancer. She also works on multiple research projects at UCLA to improve the lives of women living with this disease. In her private life coaching practice, Dr. Levin works with clients in person or over the telephone. She can be reached at www.iwillprevail.com or email@example.com.