Women used a wide variety of strategies for coping with their cancer experiences. Some of these strategies involved practical measures. Other coping strategies were connected to adopting attitudes and ways of thinking about their circumstances. For some, faith and spirituality were important elements of their journey. Coping strategies could thus involve both support from external sources and/or drawing on their own inner resources.
Changes to daily life
Being in treatment for cancer meant important changes for many women in their day-to-day life and finding a new balance that included living with cancer. Or as Isla said “I could do kids and cancer or work and cancer but I couldn’t do kids, work and cancer.” Women described having to take a step back from certain activities to be able to deal with their fatigue, for example, and the number of medical appointments that had to be attended. This meant that women were spending less time with their children, their work, or for example with their hobbies such as playing a musical instrument. Even though the nature and intensity of activities had changed, women also continued looking for normalcy and alternatives to replace the activities that they could not do anymore. For example, Nalie could no longer stay out late at night with her friends, but could still go out for dinner. And Kathryn spent more time going to the movies.
Support from others
Whether formal or informal, support from others was an important part of many women’s cancer experiences.
Amanda felt extremely well supported by her partner and family members. This helped her avoid getting caught up in thinking about worst case scenarios.
My partner he’s just ultra-positive. He’s the most positive, so positive to the point where it’s “Are you serious? This actually sucks, there are bad things happening here too.” But it’s okay. He’s really upbeat and optimistic and fun and he looks at the best case scenario and is really […]
Other women drew support from communities they belonged to prior to their diagnosis. For example, Julia had an established mindfulness meditation practice before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was able to draw on both the practice and the community for support throughout her experience. While Julia did attend a breast cancer support group one time, it was not the right fit for her.
Julia’s meditation group was a better fit for her needs even though it was not focused on cancer.
I went once but, they were lovely very welcoming. Probably, well the majority seemed to be in their mid 80s and they had known each other for a very long time and had had this group for a very long time. So they were all “Oh we hope you’ll come […]
Some women also benefited from professional psychological support and from support groups organized specifically for women with breast cancer.
Julie explains why she sought out more formal support once she learned that her cancer had spread to her bones.
When I was informed that my cancer had spread to my bones, I was scared. I was really scared. I thought about death. During many months, I had to get use to the idea that death could come sooner for me than for others. That was haunting me a lot […]
Support from others could also take the form of animal companions. Kathryn has a dog that is an important part of her support system. As she explained, having a pet not only provided her with constant companionship, it also required her to stay connected to something outside herself.
A number of women engaged in practices that helped them cope with cancer and restore a sense of wellbeing to their lives. These included yoga, meditation, relaxation and visualization. In addition to reducing stress and anxiety these practices allowed women to have a more positive experience of their bodies and a focus on wellness. They could also become part of a structured routine which many women found helpful. For example Julia found it to be effective in warding off anxious thoughts which tended to surface in the middle of the night.
Margaret described the benefit she experienced from meditation.
One thing that I did, I had a friend who was a psychologist and she said if I wanted to that I could come to see her and she would help me with the meditation. She walked me through a meditation to do. I could do it any day but […]
Visualization or guided imagery was another practice that some women found helpful. Visualization is a technique that uses the imagination to control images in the mind, helping to reduce stress and anxiety.
Melissa explained how she used visualization when undergoing chemotherapy.
One of the other things was I did a lot of visualization and one of the things that I did with visualization was when I had the tumour removed. I actually had visualized that that was all the cancer that was in my body and that was what was coming […]
Wellness practices could also be simple, obvious everyday things. As Margaret pointed out, when she was dealing with extreme nausea following chemotherapy “If you can get outside in the fresh air and walk and do something that helps greatly. I’m a big believer in that, I mean even now I try to walk every day or do something every day to stay fit and stay active.”
Faith and spirituality
While not all women had religious faith or spiritual beliefs, some did and for these women faith and spirituality were an important part of their journey. Several had experiences that made them feel as if someone were watching over them.
Ginette recounted an incident where it felt, to her, like God had connected her with the help she needed at the time.
Ginette: Well I must also say that I am a religious person and at some point in time, it must have been a year and a half for sure, that I was always into this, and then it was the radiotherapy, and in radiotherapy the staff was amazing! (It is at […]
Nadia (B) had an encounter with a trusted family doctor; it made her feel less vulnerable and watched over as she was waiting for her surgery.
I’m a very spiritual person so during the time that this whole thing happened, it was very scary. I just prayed a lot. I meditated a lot, gave me a lot of strength. There was a real miracle that I felt that happened to me during surgery. Two days before […]
More generally, women who had religious or spiritual beliefs were able to draw on these throughout their cancer journey as a source of strength and to help them cope.
Patricia had returned to her church prior to her diagnosis. This decision proved to be helpful in dealing with her illness.
I had been away from the church for a long time. I’m a Catholic, Roman Catholic, and I had just decided a few months before that that I wanted to go back to church and I did. I have since discussed that with the man who was my pastor. Not […]
Attitude and ways of thinking
Many women found that working to adopt particular attitudes and ways of thinking was an important part of coping with their cancer experience. Maintaining a sense of humour, taking “baby steps,” giving themselves permission not to be “superwoman” and to feel whatever they were feeling, and trying to maintain some sense of a normal daily routine were among the most common strategies.
There were also times when women coped by deliberately not thinking about things, or by choosing to push away negative thoughts.
Nadia (A) tried to cope with worrisome thoughts by thinking about something nice, like her grandchildren. However, as she explains, that only worked to a point.
When I go to sleep I think of it and then I tell myself look just push it away. Push it away from your brain try and think of something else. And I try to think of something else or something nice or my grandchildren what I can do for […]
When Melissa found herself dealing with worrisome thoughts she would acknowledge them but then put them aside to prevent them from becoming overwhelming.
Aliza wanted, as much as possible, to continue with life as normal. She was especially conscious of her need to not be overcome by a sense of panic.
I wanted like… not ignore, but like it didn’t exist… Continue to live because… I was afraid that it would take over or unduly… I tried not to panic, not to become hysterical, and mainly, that it didn’t take over, that it didn’t control me, that I do not become […]
Given that cancer is a serious illness, it might seem surprising that humour was an important coping strategy for many women. However, as Shelley maintained, “It takes so much energy to cry and be angry versus to laugh and say whatever and move on, try something different.” Donna found that laughing at the absurdity of situations provided relief from the side effects and consequences of treatment.
Donna shared a story about an incident that could have been embarrassing but she chose to see as funny.
I was in the store one day, I was in the drugstore with my daughter and because I didn’t have any feeling in my fingers I drop things, right. So I got my wallet out and it fell to the floor and I bent over to pick it up and […]
While it was important that other people acknowledged what women with breast cancer were dealing with, such acknowledgement could be unwelcome when it came across as pity. Joanne remarked: “I go to the grocery store you know or to a family function and everybody is pity, pity, pity.” When Joanne’s technician asked her if she had any breast complaints during screening she answered “Besides the fact that I only have one?” to try to make light of the situation.
Another strategy that was helpful for some women was learning to take “baby steps.” Debbra reminded women that cancer treatment is a long journey with many stages. Focusing on one step at a time could make things seem more manageable. Women talked about expectations and pressures to be ‘superwoman’, often times coming from within.
Melissa offered a reminder that sometimes you need to let go of that expectation and look after yourself.
I’m a mom. I have a full-time job. I have a spouse who sometimes doesn’t understand things and there’s a lot of other women or other caregivers who are in similar situations and I think that it’s really important that we all understand where everybody’s coming from. Especially because there […]
In a similar spirit, several women pointed out that dealing with breast cancer is a genuinely difficult experience. Sometimes it will get the better of you and it is important to remember that this is a legitimate way to feel.
Malika reminded friends and family members that constantly urging a woman with breast cancer to have a positive attitude could actually be unhelpful.
Oh yes, yes! You have to be patient with the people… because when we are… we have this sickness, we become… I don’t know how, we confine ourselves, we feel like… not alone but angry. We say to ourselves: “Why us?” “Why us?” And it is good to be surrounded. […]
Review date: 2019-09