A senior woman holds her arms out, letting chaotic emotions pass through her and come out calmer on the other side

From Emotional Regulation to Emotional Acceptance

I’ve been a cancer patient for eight years so far. That’s eight years of balancing symptoms, appointments, tests, treatments, and side effects. Being a cancer patient is a part of my identity that I’ve never truly accepted, if I’m to be honest. I don’t like to say things like “my illness” or “my cancer” or “my diagnosis” even. I’ve never seen leukemia as something that belongs to me even if it is a part of me.

You see, this diagnosis is something that I am always reluctantly placating, planning around, and negotiating with. A cancer diagnosis does not bend easily to the expectations of parenthood, of employment, and the expectation that we all be consistent contributors to what we call community and society.

Cancer demands my full attention

A cancer diagnosis often demands full attention. It can get quite nasty when overlooked or disregarded. It can become incredibly painful, it can lead to some grotesque complications, and it can isolate a person for their own safety.

And so I made a choice to isolate my emotions towards it.

I have treated this illness like a monster and my emotions toward it like a battle cry. If you are The Lord of the Rings fan, picture Gandolf standing on a crumbling precipice, refusing to cower to the monster, Balrog. With incredible authority he commands, “Turn back to the shadow...you shall not pass!”.

This is how I relate to this diagnosis. It is my nemesis. I turn it back to the shadows. Its effects shall not pass into my family life, workplace life, or interrupt the relationships I strive to build. As such, I strictly protect my life beyond this illness.

The emotional battle

But here’s the rub. It takes incredible strength and resilience to battle an incurable disease. It requires constant navigation and an incessant awareness of symptoms before they overwhelm the body’s defenses.

And it can be sneaky. It can surprise you when you think you are safest and, like the Balrog, it can drag you down to the depths if you are not alert to its attacks.

I’ve come to realize that this battle has an undeniable emotional aspect to it. It takes incredible fortitude to face the symptoms of leukemia in a battle hardy state year after year. Expectations at some point need to bend to needs. And while I’ve regulated my emotions towards it for years, I’ve come to realize that all the deep breathing, grounding, meditating (praying), and medicating cannot fully suppress the need to emote. The feelings that have built-up strain to be released.

Have you felt it too?

Perhaps you have felt it, too. There may be an underlying rage, a persistent sadness, an empathy for your body, and all it has been through and how it struggles on. Maybe a bitterness, an intense resentment towards how life marches on with or without your presence in it. Or maybe it's a type of despair in realizing that an incurable disease is truly a life sentence. A grief for the aspects of your existence that have been lost.

I’ve come to realize that despite all the comfort measures, thankfulness practices, dodging, and weaving to mitigate this monster, emotions cannot be denied forever, cannot be regulated into submission. There are times when the battle cry truly becomes a whimper.

And so we turn ourselves to face ourselves and perhaps this is the biggest battle of them all. To learn to surrender. No shortcuts. To feel the feelings and let them wash over us and through us... until there is peace.

Repeat as necessary. Repeat often. Take no hostages and leave nothing behind. Somehow this may feel like more work. More to deal with. More to overcome. But I’ve heard it said that with peace comes renewed strength and to that end we are worth it.

You are worth it.

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