Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Cancer Survivor's Companion

It's been a little over a year since my last book review and for this one, I write about a book that I discovered quite accidentally at the library. I was coming back from gathering books about children's illustration and writing, when I passed the aisle of books about cancer-- an aisle I hadn't visited in a longtime. Very prominently placed on the shelf were two books about surviving cancer-- one that looked a little outdated and another title, The Cancer Survivor's Companion: Practical ways to cope with your feelings after cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins, which were new to me. I thought I'd leave these books behind because I didn't think I needed it. Against my better judgement, I continued walking away but then I stopped. I realized that maybe this book could help me to understand some of the anxieties I have been experiencing a lot. So I turned around and signed out this book. I have been feeling anxiety more frequently and part of me feels like I shouldn't be having these anxieties and that I should be over this by now. As a thyroid cancer survivor, a part of me still feels like I didn't have it that bad which is even more reason to feel like I should not be having anxieties. I feel exhausted at the end of a work day and at times during the day especially on Friday afternoons when I have some of my most challenging classes to teach. Again, there are when I feel, "Why am I feeling this way? I'm weak. It's been two years since my diagnosis." I have also begun to feel disappointed that I feel like I'm not doing as much I used to and not able to do as much as I used to. Sometimes I feel like others will pass me by as I slow down. I also feel this pressure to accomplish a lot of things before it is too late and by "too late" I mean, recurrence or even death. I feel more impatient and hurried with my dreams and blame myself for not having accomplished certain things by now. I also have fears that if I feel too stressed, upset, or "worked up", the cancer will come back. Of course, this is all going on inside of my head sometimes at the same time. Sounds like a piece of work, right? My mind's a busy place. Then along comes The Cancer Survivor's Companion which was written by a British clinical psychologist Dr. Frances Goodhart and a health journalist Lucy Atkins. For over twenty years, Dr. Goodhart has worked with individuals and families coping with life-threatening illnesses namely cancer. Lucy Atkins helped to put the academic lingo into "plain speak". There wrote this book because frankly there was no book like this on the market. Although there were many case studies and quotes from Goodhart's practice, these were mostly from clients over the age of 50. I didn't think I could relate so I almost stopped reading this book. Although some of the organizational and health references are different as they refer to the United Kingdom, this book is helpful. However, as I flipped through the rest of it, I realized that there was a lot I could relate to. (I read much of it while on a flight and visiting New York City. I am still here as I type this review.) First of all, this book helped me to articulate and name some of the feelings and thoughts I am having. There are chapters on worries, depression and low mood, anger, self-esteem and body image, as well as fatigue. It helped me to find descriptors for how these feelings have been surfacing in different areas of life. In the chapter on Body Image and Self-Esteem, the authors list "thought traps" for example: - Minimising: "Yeah, I made lunch, but I used to do ten times as much in a day'; 'OK, so I've started to work on my weight but it will never make the scars go'. There are also strategies describing how to overcome these "traps". Second of all, the book normalized these thoughts for me and helped me to realize that it is only natural for me to experience them. After all, I have been through a life-threatening illness and many feelings come up months, even years later. Just because the threat of cancer is no longer present, it does not mean my emotions and mind has caught up to that, still in a "fight or flight" mode. Some of the case studies I read, reminded me of things I said or experienced. If other people experience them, then I am not alone. In the conclusion, there are the helpful statements: In the very least, this book should have shown you that you are not mad or weak or 'different' because of what you're going through. There are thousands of people wrestling with similar post-cancer emotions right now. Third, it helped me to be more patient with myself. The book helped me acknowledge that cancer has shifted my world view and I am trying to get used to "the new me". I identified with a client mentioned in one particular case study of a 35-year old testicular cancer survivor named Jamal who after cancer felt inadequate in his role as a father, husband, and paramedic. After getting to know his 'new self' and completing exercises, he did adjust. 'I don't feel like the same person I was before. I've changed- my attitude to life, my job, my roles- everything... It's ongoing, but nowadays, at least I feel I can do it: I can be a good dad, paramedic, and husband. Not the one I was before, but the one I am now.' The Cancer Survivor's Companion was not around when I looked for a book about survivorship a year ago but I found it at a great time. Published in 2011, this book made it's way into my life and helped me to feel that I deserve to be "kinder" and "gentler" to myself. There are many exercises to help cope with some of the feelings that I have been experiencing including ways to deal with some recurring issues such as fatigue and difficulty in relaxing. After reading this book, I feel like I have some useful tools. As a result, I feel the need to adjust some of my New Year's Resolutions and goals for this year to create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-sensitive) goals. It's not that they all can't get done, but they shouldn't be created with an old sense of what I was able to do before. I wish to suit my goals to who I am now and celebrate the many things that I have been able to accomplish.

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