Ask the Therapist: Betsey Cowardin

In a previous Survivor Newsletter* we offered survivors the opportunity to ask questions about how to answer questions about their breast cancer diagnosis and recovery and also how to handle the expectations and stress of the holidays. We’re fortunate to have Betsey Cowardin, a therapist and 20-year breast cancer “thrivor” answer some of your questions.

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Q1: What can survivors do and say to best support another survivor?  Many of us have gone through it, but time may have passed and things may have changed.

A1: Start by saying you are sorry the other survivor is experiencing cancer and that you will keep them in your thoughts and best wishes. Ask them how they are doing. Share that you are a survivor and want to support the other survivor in whatever way would be helpful for that person.

Q2: How do I balance my needs and stress with other people needing to feel helpful?  I feel like I need to be polite.

A2: Let the other people know that you appreciate their desire and willingness to be helpful and then let them know what you need at this time which could include a range of things from providing a dinner for your family, child care if you have young children needing attention, to running errands, taking you to your treatments or time for yourself simply to rest and be quiet. And if you don’t know what you need at this time, that is okay too. Also tell them that you are balancing a great deal and sometimes dealing with the stress requires down time for resting and recovering from the stress.This is not the time to try to please others however cancer doesn’t warrant being impolite.

Q3: What kind of feelings or struggles are my caregivers going through with my breast cancer journey?

A3: It is highly likely that your care givers are experiencing concern, fear, sadness, anger, hopefulness, fatigue, uncertainty and stress regarding your breast cancer journey. Not unlike what you the survivor is experiencing and struggling with.  Best to ask your caregivers what they are feeling and then you can open up the conversation for sharing your individual experiences.  After all, we are all in this journey together.

Q4: After the five year window of survivorship, I feel like I’ve reached a new place, kind of a no-man’s land or uncharted waters.  My identity as a survivor is different as I start to really move on from that experience. How might this affect me throughout the rest of my life?

A4: Indeed you have reached a new place in your life and created a new normal for yourself…however you define your new normal in life’s unchartered waters.  Hopefully your identity has transformed from a survivor to a thriver.  I can’t read the future for you so I don’t know how surviving cancer might affect you throughout the rest of your life.  I can share with you that as a 20 year breast cancer thriver, I am more sensitive to the vulnerability and fragility of life and how quickly life can change.  This has created an opportunity to live my life differently…in gratitude and with awareness of my life purpose.  Give yourself time for self-discovery and developing greater self-awareness.

Q5: What is the best way to handle the additional stress of the holidays?

A5: With or without cancer, we need to practice good self care in order to manage the additional stress of the holidays.  What does that look like? Set clear limits: Don’t over-commit, over-schedule, over-indulge. Establish realistic expectations with family and friends. Get enough rest. Eat healthy. Exercise a little bit each day if that won’t interfere with your treatment(s). Get outside in nature for some relaxation and enjoyment. Re-evaluate your holiday traditions and decide which traditions to keep and which traditions to let go of.  Try to focus on the true meaning of the specific holiday you celebrate.

Q6: For non-survivors, what should we say to a friend when we hear they are diagnosed?

A6: How about:  “Oh no, I am so sorry that you have been diagnosed with cancer. This stinks!”  What we say to our newly diagnosed friend depends on our personal style so just be yourself and convey your sincere feelings.