Building resiliency through the cancer experience
According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 14 million cancer survivors in the United States, and there are expected to be 18 million by 2022—that is 18 million people who have had their lives up-ended by cancer, faced their mortality, suffered through treatment and redefined their definition of a “normal” life. And when you think of how these effects ripple through the lives of their caregivers and loved ones, the number of people affected by cancer grows tremendously.
At VCU Massey Cancer Center, a variety of support staff help patients and their loved ones bounce back from traumatic experiences caused by cancer and regain meaning and purpose in their lives. This ability to overcome is called resilience, and, while the entire care team plays a part in helping our patients through these challenging times, Massey’s social workers live and breathe resiliency with patients and caregivers everyday.
“Resiliency is something that people must actively practice. It is a learned skill, and it comes easier for some than others,” says Caitlin Duffy, clinical social worker at Massey. “A cancer diagnosis is a traumatic event, and it is often accompanied by increased stress, anxiety and depression. Development of positive coping skills and resiliency helps individuals mitigate these negative psychological effects so that they can deal with the stresses of cancer and continue to function in their day to day lives. ”
Increasing ones resiliency involves building up a support system, both internally and externally. This support can be from friends and loved ones, but it also comes from remembering past stressful experiences and using the tools that helped you get through them. Taking care of ones self is also essential to overcoming life’s obstacles.
“Self care is very important in all aspects of life, but especially so when dealing with stressful situations. This is true for the patient and the caregiver, because if we don’t take care of ourselves then we won’t be in a position to take care of others,” says Kathryn McIntosh, another clinical social worker at Massey.
Other factors that help build resiliency include:
- Realizing not everything in life can be controlled;
- Understanding what can be controlled and looking for lessons in those experiences that build toward a positive outlook on life;
- Identifying stressors and developing strategies to manage or avoid them; and
- Reflecting on past experiences in order to draw meaning from current situations.
“We try to help patients celebrate the small milestones throughout their experience. Those things are different for everyone, but by recognizing and appreciating them people tend to shift toward a more positive outlook,” says Duffy. “This helps patients maintain a positive attitude throughout their cancer journey, which is a perspective that often inspires others. I think this is why many survivors look for ways to give back and help those who are traveling the same path they once did.”