A cancer diagnosis is often a shock, one that sends ripples of change through our lives. The rug is pulled out from under us, and nothing looks the same.
Inevitably there is a sense of loss, anything from absence at work to attend doctor’s appointments, to choosing to let go of a job entirely. People facing cancer cite many sources of grief: losing the life you knew, the identity you had honed, loss of direction, of innocence, loss of any feeling of control. Once you were the person who took care of a partner, family or friends and now you are the one needing support. Ultimately the fear of death is underneath most other more temporary fears. A diagnosis, even one that is not immediately life threatening, raises the spectre of our mortality. In a death-phobic culture, it can be a difficult one to face. Especially when you are apparently supposed to be feeling nothing but positive!
For decades now, cancer patients have been told to remain positive,
at all costs.
Continue with a stiff upper lip; carry on, with a completely unfounded notion that to feel anything other than stalwart happiness, will lower your chances of “survivorship”. Sadness is unacceptable. Fear, best avoided. This insistence can leave a cancer patient feeling out of sync or incongruent with their true emotions, or worse, willing to suppress or become numb to them. The tyranny of the positive, so named by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright Sided, can leave us feeling quite alone, distant from our own bodies, and unable to access release which is what the body does best.
Grief that arises after a cancer diagnosis is completely misunderstood
It isn’t just sadness or feeling down. It is more than the losses. Grief, re-defined, is neither positive or negative. Grief is bigger. It is a way of being ourselves, with life and the depth and agility required to be with difficult times.
Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise, asks:
“What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway?”
Awakening to our mortal selves, allows us the ability and agility to be with life, however it arrives.
Even if it is cancer. Turns out that being with the grief of it all, can actually help us to feel more alive.
Francis Weller, who wrote The Wild Edge of Sorrow, says it this way:
“There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive.”
Acknowledging grief can be an enormous emotional and physical relief
In my practice as a yoga therapist, I have seen that acknowledging what is really happening, what one is feeling and carrying, all of it, can be an enormous emotional and physical relief. Yoga Therapy listens to the body, and what wants to be expressed, and allows a practice to emerge, of breath and movement that supports each individual uniquely. Sometimes grief is the last thing a person wants to discuss with friends and family, yet it is what the body is holding and wanting to express. What if listening to our bodies, allows us to get a wider and deeper learning about walking with cancer?
Turning towards grief seems counter intuitive
Allowing ourselves to turn towards grief seems scary – like you might go down that rabbit hole and never return. With guidance and empathetic accompaniment, acknowledging our thoughts and fears can actually calm the nervous system. Calming the nervous system can bring the body back into balance; it can even reduce inflammation. You feel less like a victim and more as though you are actually living your life.
Yoga Therapy works directly, one on one, with the lived experience of facing cancer. Bessel Van der Kolk, Author of The Body Keeps the Score, says in a recent Yoga International post: “Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level of our being – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – makes it a powerful and effective means (for people to) re-inhabit their bodies safely, calm their minds, experience emotions directly and begin to feel a sense of strength.”
The gift of grief
An embodied practice of yoga helps to ground emotions without being swept away by them. All feelings then, can be acknowledged and felt, breathed and moved. While tenacious positivity was once the banner to hold, now authenticity is seen as a more holistic approach. Cancer has a way of changing everything – and maybe it should. It can be the shock that allows you to be more fully in your life. This is the gift of grief. It doesn’t feel like much of a gift when you are in the throes of decisions and treatment, but facing into the experience can reacquaint you with body and soul. It can give you back the agency you seek.