That Instant...When Everything Changes

It takes only a millisecond to change everything. E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.

Years ago, as a fairly new therapist in Canada, a client I’ll call ‘Elaine” (not her real name, of course) informed me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous week, and she wanted to talk about how that news was impacting her thinking. She said,

“All the things I thought were problems, the issues that brought me to see you, are nothing anymore. If my life is possibly going to be cut short, I want to figure out what I want to do, and get it done. No more wasting time on the small stuff.”

‘Cancer’ is an ugly word. It’s a fear-inducing diagnosis that many, many people will face this year. It seems in today’s modern, high-tech world there are more and more types of cancer impacting more and more individuals. It’s difficult to find anyone these days who doesn’t directly know someone who has had cancer. Speaking for myself, I’ve had several friends and family members who have been diagnosed with cancer; some recovered, some did not.

A catastrophic medical diagnosis such as cancer changes everything. In one instant, the very second the doctor says, “I’m afraid it’s cancer,” life as we know it ceases to exist. It’s just gone. From that time, life becomes a series of moments. Days no longer mark the week, and the future is this far-off, hazy and unformed place that doesn’t really matter anymore.

Elaine’s ‘measuring stick’ for what was important, changed in an instant. She suddenly no longer cared about whether or not her boss was happy with her. She wasn’t interested anymore in what would advance her career. This morning’s fight with her husband was instantly forgotten. The world shrank to NOW. Her continuously looping thought became, “If I only have a limited time left, what do I really want to do?” Our work together consisted of figuring out what it meant to her to really live, just in case she died sooner than later. Thankfully for Elaine, medical intervention was successful.

The road to recovery was long and painful, but she was eventually given a clean bill of health. But you know what? Her measuring stick for ‘important’ never reverted to what it was before. Fifteen years later she still asks herself every morning, “What do I really want to do today?”

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer; are being treated for breast cancer; or have survived breast cancer; take a moment to give some attention and care to your mental and emotional state. Consider joining a cancer support group (research data says this has a huge measurable benefit). Maybe give yourself the gift of 5 or 6 sessions with a therapist whose expertise includes catastrophic or chronic illness. If your life is ruled by fear – of cancer, illness, death, (indeed any fear) – see a professional who can help; therapist… psychologist… coach… take your life back. In fact, don’t wait for a devastating diagnosis. Take those fears that are keeping you from really living now and get help to banish them. Life is for living, not just existing.

Most importantly, in this month in which the world highlights breast cancer and its detection, treatment, and survivors, and remembers its victims, take the time to be screened yourself. It might be the smartest thing you’ve ever done.

Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg, RPC, MPCC-S, DAAETS, ACS

Originally published in bazaar Kuwait 02.10.2014 (Edited)

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