The Pink October Series, Episode 3: Resilience After Breast Cancer

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Just Thoughts

I was surprised by a discussion on Brio’s Facebook page a week or two ago. The discussion was prompted by Episode 1 of The Pink October Series: Eating After Breast Cancer. The idea was that despite doing “everything right,” you can still get cancer. I must admit - I’ve overlooked this issue on the Brio Blog until now.

I’m not sure why I missed it. I imagine it’s because I’m focused on positive health change for people who may not have the tools or information to start with. But I do see see patients regularly in the oncology clinic who have done everything right. There are ultra athletes with colon cancer. There are ‘never smokers’ who get lung cancer. It doesn’t make epidemiological sense - but it happens, every day.

The flip side is there are people who smoked two packs a day since they were 12 who don’t get lung cancer. There are people with morbid obesity who never get colon or breast cancer.

This is not to say that anyone should be blamed or penalized for any habit or habitus, or given special credit when they adopt healthy habits. It’s really just to say, “How do I make sense of the random logic of the universe?” It’s also to say, “How do I cope with the injustice of cancer when it didn’t effect you, or you, or him, or her?”

Where do cancer survivors put these thoughts and the potential anger they provoke? I don’t have the answer, but in thinking about coping in the face of cancer, the topic of resilience comes straight to my mind.

re·sil·ience

/rəˈzilyəns/

noun

  1. 1.

    the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

  2. 2.

    the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

I love the idea of cancer patients bouncing back into shape like the super heroes they are, hairless Elasticmen and women expertly lassoing the ultimate villain with magic IV tubing, compelling their tumor to tell the truth.

The resilience I see on a daily basis is astounding and fits this springy, heroic vision. It’s what inspires me to keep swinging back at adversity in my own life, to keep coming back to my work every day despite what sometimes feel like insurmountable odds, and it’s what gives me hope.

It is the truth.

Quality of Life and Resilience in Breast Cancer

Psychological resilience is defined as “an ability of a person to protect his/her mental health when faced with adversity such as the cancer diagnosis.”

Studies have shown that quality of life in breast cancer patients is correlated with measures of resilience. Women with breast cancer who are married, have large, effective social support systems, and women with positive coping styles have greater resilience and a greater quality of life. Resilience has also been associated with less social and psychological distress after cancer.

Where does resilience come from?

According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

That’s a reassuring fact for cancer survivors. Resilience is not necessarily something you’re just born with. Perhaps some people have an advantage, for instance those born into loving families who are taught at an early age to form strong bonds with friends, families, and communities, but it’s not a fixed trait.

The APA also sights the following personal factors associated with resilience:

  • The capacity to make and implement plans.

  • Good self esteem.

  • Good communication and problem solving skills.

  • Good self control and impulse management.

Cultivating Resilience

Here are a few ways to build more resilience in your life.

Stay Connected to People 

Staying connected to the people in your life feeds resilience. Support from other human beings allows you to recognize and strengthen your sense of hope. Offering help to others has the same effect because providing solutions helps you see solutions to your own struggles.

Don't see crisis as insurmountable.

Crisis is just that - a very stressful time that has a beginning and an end. Choose to react to and interpret crises calmly instead of trying to change the fact that it’s happening at all. I don’t mean to be snide here. It’s just that choosing to react calmly gives you power over the event because it puts you in the driver’s seat. You are in control of your reaction, even if you can’t control that the crisis is occurring.

Accept change. 

Again, this is about a feeling of control. If you don’t fight change and instead embrace it, you can focus much more energy on making the things you can change even better.

Move toward your goals. 

Developing goals, no matter how big or small, and reaching those goals can give you a sense of control, accomplishment, and hope. Setting lofty goals will set you on a path of disappointment, so think of baby steps instead of giant leaps for the greatest feeling of success.

Take action. 

That is to say, don’t avoid important decisions or events. Allow yourself to decide and have faith in your decision no matter the outcome. Avoiding analysis paralysis will give you a sense of control.

Look for growth. 

Crisis can lead to growth. I’ve said elsewhere on the blog - I never think of cancer as a gift or something positive, but people can learn and grow from experiencing diversity. Many who experience hardship report a sense of strength as a result, even though they didn’t want the hardship in the first place (this in fact is the definition of resilience).

Like yourself. 

Consider giving yourself the unconditional love you likely give others. Feeling good about yourself and your ability to problem solve helps build resilience. If you believe you’re weak, helpless, unworthy, or easily overwhelmed, it’s more likely you’ll fulfill this false prophecy.

Keep things in perspective. 

Looking at the big picture always helps. Even when things are really hard in your own life, and I’m not belittling that here, it’s worth looking outside yourself to the larger struggle of humanity. It can make you feel a part of something and move you toward personal growth.

Maintain optimism. 

Being positive about your life can actually make good things happen. It’s simple. When you expect the worst, that’s all you see. When you expect good things, you can recognize them in even the smallest win.

Stay mentally and physically healthy. 

Do what is good for your mind and body. If you feel as well as possible physically, you have the energy to face what the day brings. If you take care of your mind, you can do what needs to be done more effectively.

Take Home Message

I like that the discussion around resilience is positive. We talk so much about the negative things that happen with cancer - I certainly don’t need to repeat them here. Instead, resilience is about a person’s strength and ability to see the glass half full, no matter what. And those glass-half-full-resilience goggles you wear can actually make your life palpably better.

That’s cool and powerful.

But I must acknowledge - this is a longer climb for some survivors, maybe those less fortunate who don’t have wide support networks, the financial means to make things work, or a life partner who lifts and carries you when you need them most. For those survivors my heart aches because they may not see the possibility of resilience because for them, it’s a cloudy, cloudy day.

Know I’m thinking about you if that’s how you feel right now. The sun will come out soon.

Take care.

XOXO,

Susan