Showing Self-Compassion Day 5: My Experience with Self-Compassion and Cancer
Self-compassion, the ability to be with yourself in your pain and suffering, was a real personal challenge when I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. I have had plenty of opportunities to practice self-compassion throughout my years of managing chronic migraines. However, on July 29, 2020, I received my shocking diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer, a life-threatening illness that was going to change my life. I didn’t realize then that self-compassion would be practiced in a whole new way.
The first few months after receiving the diagnosis and treatment plan (dense dose chemotherapy, mastectomy, and radiation), I felt shock, yet also optimism and some energy. There was some fear mixed in there as the oncologist shared with me the seriousness of this diagnosis, yet I felt hopeful as she also shared how far they had come with research, and the hope she had that this could possibly be cured. It was overwhelming to think of the next eight months, and I knew I had to follow the advice of taking one day at a time, and even just one step at a time. What I needed to practice most at that time was the counsel of Matthew 6:34: “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (NLT).
Self-compassion didn’t really seem to be something I had to practice yet. There was a flurry of appointments in the first month and keeping up with work as I began my first few chemotherapy treatments. I felt apprehensive as these treatments began and especially anxious the night before my first chemotherapy treatment. Initially, things were relatively uneventful, but by the end of September I noticed a real shift in my emotions as sadness became more real—a deeper sadness and a sense of loss. As October began, the emotional impact of the cancer journey became more apparent, as I struggled deeply with the reality of my diagnosis and the effects of chemotherapy began taking their toll.
I began to wonder what was wrong with me—maybe I’m not reading my Bible enough, or not trusting God enough in this trial. I asked many questions and did an extensive self-evaluation, trying to figure out what was the matter with me. Although it is good to self-examine at times (because we can get off track), I was being too hard on myself and not having self-compassion. I wasn’t being realistic with myself as to the trauma I was going through. I began meeting with a social worker from the oncology department, and likely the biggest help I received from him was realizing that much of what I was experiencing was a normal part of a serious cancer diagnosis and facing one’s mortality. The social worker validated my experience and encouraged me to be gentle with myself and allow my mind and body the opportunity and time needed to grieve my loss of health.
I began taking in God’s compassion toward me, and I realized that I truly had been doing my part, whether it was reading, talking to God, journaling, or taking little truths I had written and taping them to my bedside wall, my doorway, the bathroom mirror, and even where I folded clothes. I was vulnerable and needed these steady reminders that God was who He said He was, and that I would get through this trial and make it to the other side. It wasn’t going to last forever (even though it felt like it). Throughout this time, I really struggled with whether God was really there for me. He was so quiet, silent even. I often felt weak and didn’t feel His strength like I thought I would. This was a very trying time for me for about three months as I walked through this deep valley of emotion. At times I fought the emotion and tried to make it go away. As I have often told others, grief is only healed by walking through it, not around it, and I was being tested on this again.
Even while I sometimes doubted God during this time, I was practicing self-compassion. As I considered His loving patience and His understanding of my thoughts and emotions, it was so soothing and calming. Many times, I received reassurance from others, and I loved hearing of those who were praying for me. Knowing that others were praying for me provided me with so much comfort.
I realized after the trial was over that God had been taking care of me and loving me through others. As I grappled with painful emotions and questions that were much more difficult for me than the physical journey of cancer, it seemed like He was silent—but others were not silent at all! He loved me through meals, cards, and kind words and acts from others. I have never felt so loved by God’s people like I did through that time. If you prayed for me during my cancer journey even once, then you were a part of what God was doing in my life. It was powerful! I learned that His love doesn’t always come in a tidy package like I expect. His love came in a much more surprising way that left me puzzled at first, but then finally awestruck that He chose to show me His love in another even more beautiful way. Through it all I could rest in His compassion, taking it in for myself.