What I’ve Learned as Both a Therapist and Thriver
When I first sat down to write this blog, I started to think of the multitude of ways that being diagnosed with breast cancer at 28 years old impacted my mental health. I reflected for a moment longer and realized – my experience with breast cancer impacted both my personal and professional lives in ways I never imaged, including igniting a passion for helping fellow survivors.
For the better part of the first few years of my diagnosis, surgeries and recoveries, I was (rightfully so) focused on survival. As years went by and I went through what I have since defined as “the thaw,” I was increasingly drawn towards examining my life and my values. Was I living the life I truly wanted? How had these experiences changed my vision of a fulfilled life? And… did I have a higher calling? That last question was in the driver’s seat of my thoughts for weeks after it first crossed my mind. As excited as I was at the thought of helping others, I was equally anxious. And yet the same word kept repeating itself – therapist…
But going back to school will take so much time and effort… therapist…
But I’m happy in my current career… therapist…
But it will be uncomfortable to be vulnerable and learn these new skills… you’re… going to be… a… therapist.
If you haven’t already guessed, I followed that nagging voice in my mind (which was intuition disguised by anxiety) and went back to school while working full time to become a therapist. Although it’s been over two years in the making, I can hardly believe it. I’m officially a therapist-in-training completing the final stages of my Masters in Counselling Psychology and am working with clients. What follows is a list of things I’ve learned are true in my work as a therapist and as a cancer thriver.
Sometimes, your values change.
Therapist – Values are a big part of therapy. Whether processing feelings like guilt or shame, or going through a life reset event like receiving a cancer diagnosis, there are times when our values change. As we go through the ebb and flow of life, it’s possible to lose sight of what guides us. What we want to guide us. Becoming reacquainted with values and how our daily actions connect to them can be insightful in inspiring change.
Thriver – It isn’t that I don’t enjoy working in communications. I love writing, reading and connecting with people. My experience with cancer caused me to take a long, hard look at my values. What was I passionate about? How did I want to spend my life? How did I define a life well lived?
Sometimes, you’ll feel brave and exhausted.
Therapist – Many clients express conflicting emotions, especially during the pandemic. The push and pull between being grateful and being exhausted. Both can be equally true. You can show strength by softening, and you can be resilient and still need rest. Recognizing and allowing those conflicting emotions has the potential to help ease the tension caused by experiencing emotions at opposite spectrums.
Thriver – What’s that saying young people have nowadays? Feel all the feels? Well, that could be a mantra for anyone going through cancer diagnosis/treatment/surgery/the thaw. There will be moments when you literally feel empowered and terrified at the same time. Even intense experiences like survivor guilt, which I blogged about, bring to the surface conflicting emotions of gratitude and sadness wrapped up in a blanket of shame.
Sometimes, old issues come back in new ways.
Therapist – I know what it’s like to attend therapy as a client and experience the resurgence of an issue I thought I’d already dealt with and moved on from. I’ve told my therapist, “Oh, I’ve dealt with that already. I don’t have to do it anymore.” Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids! Just because we’ve healed from something, doesn’t mean we don’t need to heal from it some more or heal from it again. Show yourself compassion and kindness as old wounds reopen.
Thriver – Triggers happen in expected and unexpected ways. I still expect to feel pain when I smell hand sanitizer because that was what the nurses would apply before they touched me during chemotherapy. This has been interesting to deal with during the pandemic. Also, the body remembers. I still experience an unpleasant physical reaction when I watch the snow fall from my back door because it brings back memories of an excruciating day during chemo. Triggers happen. What we can control is how we react.
Sometimes, you’ll have to do it alone.
Therapist – Whether I’m the client or the therapist, I know that sometimes we have to do the work alone. I’m there for my clients, as my therapist is there for me. But the hard truth is that what we do outside of the (virtual) therapy room matters. Sometimes the scariest, best, most fulfilling things we can do are done on our own.
Thriver – Hands down, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was walk into my breast implant replacement surgery alone (due to the pandemic) and spend the time leading up to surgery by myself. A part of me broke upon receiving the news that I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone with me. I walked into the hospital and away from my mother with my head high and, somehow, without shedding a tear. As I sat in the waiting room in my gown and socks and watched others sitting with their loved ones (why were they allowed to bring someone?), something in me sparked. Like a flame by my heart. As angry as I was, I could feel myself coming together and growing stronger at the very point where I had broken. I thought, “You’re Cassandra. You’re a beast. You can do this. You can do anything. You’re gonna crush this and, when you do, you’ll be unstoppable.” And I’ve held onto that mood ever since.
To read more from Cassandra, click here.
Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at cancerunder30.wordpress.com
Cassandra is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) who hopes to connect with and support women affected by cancer. Visit www.cutherapy.ca to learn more about Cassandra and her therapeutic approach.