Alberta Cancer Foundation

Beyond Cancer: Choosing Resilience


What does it mean to have resilience as you go through your cancer experience and move into survivorship after treatment?

Cancer changes so many aspects of life, from how you physically function to how you relate to those you care for most. For most people, strong emotions and feelings of vulnerability come up along the way. It can be difficult to know just how to navigate those sometimes overwhelmingly strong emotions and how to bounce back to feeling comfortable.

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience “is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” Studies show that there are many ways to cope successfully with these changes, and that your history, culture and upbringing will determine which ways feel natural for you. That said, it’s also important to know that resilience is not a trait you are born with, but a series of active choices. You can set a course of action that will improve how you feel, and learn how to manage the emotions that might feel out of control. Those angry, sad, fearful feelings are normal, and allowing yourself to experience them, but know that you can take a break from them, is a crucial aspect of resilience.

Connecting with others who are supportive of you and taking the opportunity to become supportive of others, are the two sides of the resilience coin. We are social creatures, and somehow just talking with others who allow you to express everything that is on your mind will lighten your load. Passing that along to others can reaffirm your sense of confidence and courage even when you are feeling low.

Flexibility during change also protects you and helps you to bounce back. Most of us want to retreat toward what we know and understand during times of stress, even if those ways of coping are too rigid to help us in this new situation. Embracing change and allowing yourself to grow in ways you did not anticipate can allow you to create a new path post cancer. For many people this involves re-appraising their goals and values, and allowing unhelpful aspects of their previous lives to fall away in favour of new ways of thinking and living.

Taking care of yourself at each step along the way can become the fertile soil from which your new life can grow. The discipline to care for yourself can go against ingrained patterns of caring for others first, or of prioritizing work over self-nurture. However, even a simple discipline of engaging in one positive activity per day allows you to take time to do things you enjoy, and can bolster your resilience and confidence to handle what’s difficult.

Finally, limiting your exposure to what feels too difficult to consider can protect and nurture your resilience. When my husband was dying of a brain tumour when I was 24 years old and had a young infant, I knew that I would have to face becoming the breadwinner for my family and coping with tremendous loss. I felt overwhelmed by a flood of fear anticipating this. But I set a course of action with discipline that helped me to face it gradually. On the first day, I let myself think about the future for just a few seconds, then closed the door on it mentally and emotionally until the next day. I promised myself that I would think about it a few seconds longer every day. As I did this practice day after day, the length of time I could stand to face what would come grew longer and longer. My comfort with my emotions grew over time, and the disciplined-but-nurturing way I took care of myself paid off. Facing what you feel is vital to making effective decisions, but so is knowing when it’s time to give yourself a break.

Resilience is this ability to engage in the difficulties at hand while remaining engaged, active and self-nurturing, and allowing others around you to connect and care.

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