The Stages of Healing

by Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel
There is a process that happens after the bomb ‘CANCER’ has been dropped in your lap. Everyone seems to go through these stages in a different order, but we all go through them in one form or another.

I was reminded of these as I spent time with someone this weekend that had a life-changing bomb dropped in her lap. Not cancer, but still devastating. It called to mind all the stages in the healing process from initial diagnosis to well on the way to healing. I say well on the way because healing is a process that is ongoing. There will always be something in your life that requires adjustment. Life is just like that.

Stage One: Diagnosis – or the BOMB

The diagnosis ‘CANCER’ stuns. There is shock, disbelief, mind numbing blankness, physical and emotional body responses, mind games, and on and on. You just can’t believe that this is happening and that it is happening to you. There is the awareness that going back is not an option, but going forward is not where you want to go either. Besides, what is forward? At this point, you don’t know. The path is unclear, the future unclear, and reality majorly sucks.

You suddenly realize that you are alone in this moment. The rest of the world is still carrying on as if nothing has happened. Well, it hasn’t to them. However, it has forever changed for you. You are trapped in a bubble in the middle of life going on around you. As you slowly look around, you are looking to see if anyone gets the picture. Some do. Some don’t. Some run. Some stay. You just don’t know who they are at this moment in time.

Stage Two: Stepping out of the bubble and tentatively moving forward

This is the time you will be ensconced in doctor’s appointments to determine which treatments are advised for your situation. There are decisions to be made – often in a short space of time with no think allowance. Will it be surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or drug therapy? What are the ramifications of each of these treatments? How do you feel about them?

Others may weigh in to the decision process bringing along their belief systems and fears. You have enough of your own fears to deal with but now will be called upon to help others through the process. Cancer affects everyone around you. They look to you for guidance on how to handle the situation – how are you reacting. There is comfort to offer when you need comfort and support yourself. An interesting situation, for sure!

Stage Three: Treatment Phase

This is a busy time that involves all the physical aspects of the cancer journey – surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation depending on your situation and diagnosis. Not everyone gets the same treatment. It was explained very clearly to me when I was going through this phase that everyone’s cancer is unique. Therefore, although the treatments may seem the same, they are all uniquely different – the delivery and formulas.

And just as our cancers are unique, so are our bodies and responses to the diagnosis. Each person reacts in their own way based on body chemistry, lifestyle, background and personality. Some people sail through this part with a positive attitude and have very minimal side effects. Others are just the opposite. And many are in between. However, each person does have a reaction and a choice which will determine their journey.

The surgery itself can be a challenge. There are physical changes to our bodies which need some adjustment time and modification. How others view us can affect our attitude and how we handle this part. The important thing to remember at this time is you are still you no matter how others see you and importantly, how you see yourself. And, yes, the you that was is no more – a new you is emerging as you realize life has definitely shifted.

Stage Four: Emotional Healing

Emotionally, cancer is very difficult. This is the part of the journey so hard for others to see and acknowledge. Their own fears get in the way and their comfort level with the person you were emerges strongly as they want that you to return to them. There is a lot of work to do in this area whether at the treatment phase or when treatment is finished or even years later. I’ve known people to start dealing with this phase years after their diagnosis – or even when the cancer returns. At this time, it has their full attention.

My suggestion is to recognize this part up front and deal with it as best you can. It comprises evaluation of lifestyle, old emotional wounds, forgotten dreams, etc. It’s digging down to find the authentic self that is often put away as life requires us to conform to other’s expectations or life’s necessities. These emotions are stored inside of us waiting to be unlocked when the time is right.

This is the phase that is often ongoing. Digging deep takes patience and time. It’s hard work. There is likely a lot of stuff we’ve buried that truly we don’t want to dredge up and examine. However, in order to move forward, it’s necessary to defuse and unload this baggage in order to make room for newer and more enriching emotions.

Stage Five: Building Your Toolbox

Okay, what does that mean! It’s the learning phase -building a toolbox of therapies, techniques, etc. you can use to heal. For some, there will be modalities you’ve never considered or even heard about. These can be:
a) Complementary healing regimes – Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic medicine, native healing, naturopathy, homeopathy. These are ancient healing traditions that have stood the test of time and can work alone or incorporated into what we know as traditional medicine.
b) Herbs and Tonics – these are remedies that enhance and rebuild the immune system allowing the body to heal from the inside out. If you’ve had radiation and chemotherapy, this is a necessary step.
c) Exercise – the body has been depleted. Now is the time to gain strength, increase flexibility from treatment and surgery, get more oxygen into your system, and increase your range of motion so that you can move through your days with ease.
d) Stress Management – cancer is highly stressful as are the changes required in your lifestyle to accommodate all of these stages. One of the biggest stressors is facing our mortality. Life is no longer certain. In reality, it never was but it wasn’t right in front of our face. Now its front row, center. Some of the best ways to counter stress are meditation, yoga, tai chi, guided imagery and the comfort of a support system.
e) Self-Care – this is the time to make time for YOU. Find what brings you joy. Stop to smell the roses and be grateful for what is good in your life. That may be harder to find in the moment, but there will be some things you can celebrate. Learn the NO word. Set boundaries around your time and commitments.
f) Search for Meaning – what is life all about? What do you really believe about religion and/or spirituality? What is your purpose in life or meaning? These are soul-searching questions where answers can be found while journaling or deep in meditation or reading or conversations with friends and most especially in all those quiet moments when you can actually ‘hear’ your inner voice.
Stage Six: Lifelong Learning

The journey of healing from cancer is really the journey to heal your life. My experience has been that life will always throw out challenges. How we deal with them is our learning curve. This is ongoing.

The other issue of the lifelong learning from the cancer journey is the constant awareness to stay on the healing path. It’s very tempting to get drawn back into our old way of being – the one where we got sick. Our new norm is often not in step with the rest of society, especially our culture. Staying the course takes diligence, practise and always realigning when we get off track which will happen.

It is all so worth it. If you have the courage to start on this path, you will find it hard work but it will be the most worthwhile work you have ever done. My hope is that you will embrace the journey, let go of the fear and treat life as the adventure it is. There are no guarantees for any of us. None of us know what waits ahead. We just have to soldier on and adjust as we go.

To your healing journey of life,

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