Pattern Changing for Breast Cancer Survivors

During my career as a social worker, I worked at a residential and non-residential setting for battered women. In addition to individual counseling, I ran a support group for clients with emphasis on Pattern Changing (1995 Sage Publications, Inc.). I was thinking about this group the other day and I realized that some of the material would be valuable for survivors of cancer, as well as survivors of abuse.

Cancer cells are not a person, but they do abuse us. Cancer causes physical maltreatment and at least for a time, it controls us and exercises strong power over our body, minds, and souls; it causes a sense of helplessness. It is a worldwide problem that affects all economic, social, educational, sexual, and ethnic segments of society.

Many of us get into negative patterns of sadness, grief, anger, and fear following diagnosis, treatment, and life after cancer. Cancer survivors suffer many losses: a part of their body, body image, self-identity, the integrity of self, the loss of a sense of safety. Even with all my training, it took me a while to realize that I was actually grieving. It was during meditation that I heard a voice in my head saying “pay attention to your grieving” when the guided meditation was actually saying “pay attention to your breathing.” I then had a “label” for what I was feeling and could better deal with it. This is important for all the emotions that we experience.

What I want to address is changing unhealthy patterns or negative “loops” in our thoughts that contribute to sadness, grief, fear,and anger. Often we get “caught” in this “loop” and can’t find our way out. Some of these negative patterns are a result of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or the subsyndromal (not meeting full criteria) symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress: distressing nightmares, flashbacks, efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the cancer experience, feeling detachment or estrangement from others, having a sense of a foreshortened future, difficulty falling or staying asleep, outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, and hypervigilance among others (full criteria of PTSD also in postings from July 2013). These symptoms encompass all the emotions of sadness, grief, fear, and anger. If the symptoms suffered meet the full criteria of PTSD then professional help is needed. If the symptoms are affecting your life, but not disabling your life then learning how to change unhealthy patterns may be sufficient to get back on track. The first step in the process is to identify the patterns (and the emotions causing them) that you want to change; be aware of the negative thoughts that form the framework of the old pattern. Is one of these emotions stronger than the other for you? Most of the time, all of these emotions are experienced in a cyclical manner. Often survivors tell me that they have difficulty falling asleep at night because they can’t stop ruminating about what they have been through and what might lie ahead for their future. What we have to realize is that although this type of thought pattern is a normal response to trauma, it is a terrible waste of energy. We need to be vigilant (not hypervigilant) with our follow-up care and then live in the moment. No one has any guarantees for the future. It is time to develop new patterns of thought. You will need to practice positive thoughts that will form a framework for this new pattern of a self-confident and peaceful you. Visualize a healthy core (an authentic self) with a strong sense of self-identity, self-worth, self-integrity, a sense of safety and peace, and then visualize boundaries firmly in place around this core. Use meditation and visualization to instill these new thought patterns. An earlier post provides a Metta Meditation: May I be safe from inner and outer harm, May I be healthy and strong, May I be happy and peaceful of heart, May I be filled with a sense of ease and well-being. You can add on or modify this to fit your needs. Example: May I accept and love my body the way it is, May I feel safe in my body. Two of the centering thoughts for meditation from Deepak Chopra and Oprah’s Meditation Challenge (Finding Your Flow)is My security and peace are within; My Power and Strength are within.” Ten to twenty minutes of meditation each day will help to instill new patterns of thought.

Anger is another strong feeling that many of us deal with during diagnosis, treatment, and life after cancer. The feeling of anger is as natural as that of being thirsty. Animals become angry when their territory is invaded and they feel threatened. We humans become angry for the same reasons, it signals us that our psychological and/or physical boundaries are being crossed. Cancer cells invade our bodies and change our lives. Of course, we feel anger. The emotion of anger is neither good or bad, it just is (like every emotion). However, learning to deal with it appropriately is important. Anger is energy and if not recognized, well be turned inward and cause depression. Other typical responses to anger are stomachaches, diarrhea, heart palpitations, shaking, crying, and emotional distancing.
The first step in handling the anger is to recognize the feeling. Analyze exactly what it is about the situation that is causing your anger and release some of your internal anger energy. The important component for recognizing and analyzing your anger is that you can then deal with it appropriately without causing harm to yourself or lashing out at others. If you are physically able, exercise is helpful. Other methods are towel twisting or pounding on a pillow. And, of course, my favorite “go to” method is visualization and meditation. Visualize yourself doing something to release and be free of the anger. Keeping a journal where you can release the anger energy is another effective tool. Most importantly, if anger is absorbing your energy and controlling your life, surround yourself with supportive people in group and/or individual counseling while you are working on this difficult issue.

I leave you with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”