A few weeks ago, I wrote about how our children are our co-survivors when we are diagnosed with cancer. This circle clearly extends to our closest people, our partners, our extended family, our friends, and our community.

I was once a co-survivor as well, when at the age of 19 and then 25, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first and final time. I recall witnessing her fear of recurrence between the two episodes and listening to her share how she was healing her body through massage after her first round of treatment.

When I think about the time we had as co-survivors, I remember feeling very uncertain and concerned about the fears she was having. I wanted her to feel better, but I was not sure how to help besides listening. Perhaps I tried to convince her to not worry so much, as we often do when someone is frightened. I’m not sure, but I hope that she felt supported.

As I observe how my husband and closest family and friends have been impacted, one common denominator seems to be that as I return to health, they begin to share little snippets of what it was like to witness the impact of cancer and it’s treatment.

It is natural to want to protect someone from full awareness of the big picture, especially when they are in the middle of the storm.  However, at some point, if we wish to maintain and deepen our intimacy, we need to find ways to begin to unpack what the experience was like for everyone involved.  When we begin that process, we are likely to come up against the common communication challenges.  To list a few:

  • Avoiding tough topics- time may heal wounds, but if we use this as a strategy, we run the risk of creating bigger wounds
  • Becoming defensive, quickly moving into the fight mode, often a sign that we are feeling triggered and vulnerable
  • Becoming overwhelmed- getting flooded with emotions and feeling unable to re-ground yourself
  • Shutting down- feeling overstimulated by the intensity of situation and retreating

Some of us can stay cool as a cucumber in the face of adversity. However; since cancer asks us to confront the four universal fears (of dying, of being along, of losing freedom, of meaninglessness) in addition to the fact that most of us have little “training” for doing so, let’s assume that initially it is going to be a little rough on ourselves and our loved ones as we find our way through processing what has happened.

Here are some thoughts of how to set up yourself for success when preparing to communicate about something tender.

  • Be thoughtful about creating connection- it is so easy to get disconnected in our busy lives, finding simple ways to connect briefly can help maintain our ability to stay together in the storms of life
  • Create a secure and safe bond, through communicating interest, acceptance and love
  • Check in with the other person, to see if they are emotionally available to connect, and if it is not a good time then make a plan for the near future
  • And when you do start to process, take your time.  When we take small steps, we can more easily observe how we are doing with vulnerability.  If the communication challenges start showing up, it is probably a sign that it is time to take a break.

Hopefully, with a little time and intention, the challenges of co-survivorship will ultimately bring more depth and joy into your most intimate relationships.  When we nurture our relationships through the dark night of the soul, we can uncover hidden gems and foster a mutual deep appreciation and connection with those who have shown up to be by our side.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.