"Radical acceptance" to deal with breast cancer and the fear of recurrence.
After having experienced a diagnosis of breast cancer, and the whirlwind of treatment that ensues, many of us are left suffering with PTSD, depression and anxiety. Radical acceptance teaches you to understand and manage these normal but sometimes debilitating feelings. To reach full acceptance of living with breast cancer or the fear of its recurrence, in order to find peace and improve your quality of life.
Coping with breast cancer.
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your world is turned upside down. Your normal life is whipped out from beneath you suddenly and unceremoniously. You are faced with a storming tsunami of unfamiliar medical terms. Perhaps you are repeatedly beaten down by bad news, and presented with terrifying treatment options. You might feel powerless and scared for what the future holds. After treatment, even if you are lucky enough to be in remission, PTSD and the constant threat of recurrence weighs heavily.
Most people’s natural human response to these emotions is to fight them. To find a way out. But when something is beyond your control, like cancer, this can lead to feelings of immense frustration, anxiety and depression. You want something that is simply not possible.
Radical acceptance is based on the notion that the suffering you are experiencing comes not directly from its cause, but from your interaction with it. That by fully accepting that you have cancer, or that your cancer might come back, you are able to regulate your emotions and live harmoniously alongside it. You can’t control what is going to happen, but you CAN control how you manage it.
Interesting right? As a survivor of triple negative breast cancer I live with the daily fear of recurrence, and was keen to learn more.
What is radical acceptance?
Radical acceptance is a form of Dialectical, Behavioural Therapy (DBT.) In case you’ve started to zone out, it is science and evidence based, so nothing wishy washy! DBT combines cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness to give the patient (you) a better understanding of the extreme emotions you are feeling, and learn skills to manage them.
Radical acceptance means FULLY, in your mind, heart and body, accepting a situation for exactly what it is. It works to replace avoidant, resistant behaviours, which can be exhausting and demoralising, with pure acceptance.
How does it help cancer patients?
Radical acceptance was initially used to treat people with Personality Disorders, who often have a hard time regulating their emotions. It is now used to treat a wide range of mental illnesses and there is ever growing interest in its use for cancer patients.
A 2019 meta analysis showed that cancer patients who practice acceptance based behaviours, experienced less psychological distress whilst living with the disease.
- Radical acceptance does not mean that you APPROVE of what you are going through. It is not “forgiving” cancer for what it has taken from you. For example a person that was abused as a child can accept what happened and their emotions around it, but that of course does not make it remotely “acceptable”. DBT promotes a balance of acceptance of what is, and openness to change.
- It also is not giving up. Quite the opposite, it is a proactive measure that you work hard on to improve your quality of life. It keeps you goal oriented instead of being stuck in intense negative emotions. In the context of dealing with breast cancer or the aftermath, acceptance doesn’t mean that you won’t still fight the beast with every bone in your body. It is important to remove that judgement.
- Radical acceptance is only helpful in distressing circumstances that are beyond a person’s control, such as cancer. Although you can apply it to many areas of life that you might be struggling with, care should be taken that it is not used to avoid dealing with something that can be changed, or excusing unhealthy behaviours.
How to implement radical acceptance.
Keep in mind that radical acceptance is a skill that you need to work on and practice. You need to retrain your mind, and that can take time. Consider seeing a therapist that is trained in DBT. They will be able to guide you through it and help you with the challenging emotions that might come up.
Here are some things you can try at home.
When you start feeling panicked about your cancer or fearing its recurrence, remind yourself that you have absolutely no control over the situation. Remind yourself that worrying about it will only fuel those feelings of stress. Cancer loves stress, and doesn’t deserve to have any more from you.
Imagine how you would feel and how you would act if you completely accepted it. Picture your happy place, a beautiful peaceful beach, playing with your children in the garden on a summer’s day, hurtling down a perfectly untouched ski slope. Whatever it looks like to you.
Take a deep breath into your lungs and consciously commit to acceptance instead.
Stay grounded in the present moment. Meditation apps such as calm and headspace can be very helpful with that.
Keep a list of these nearby, on your phone even, for when you are feeling triggered.
- Whatever happens next, I will get through it.
- This feeling (fear, anxiety, overwhelm) is temporary and WILL pass.
- I am able to cope with these emotions even though they feel overwhelming.
- My feelings of anxiety do not reflect the outcome of this situation.
- It is possible for me to accept that I have/had cancer, and still be happy.
- I have the ability to choose the path I go down.
- When I stay calm I am able to make better choices for myself and my family.
Reaching a place of radical acceptance has been something that has happened pretty organically for me as time has gone on. There was a time that I thought it would never be possible to feel truly content ever again with the spectre of cancer hanging over me. But here I am, doing just that.
Good luck wherever you are on your journey. It can be a rocky road to wonder. If I can help you in any way, drop me a message. I’d love to hear from you.