The Cancer Journey: An Unplanned Detour to Your Life
(By Jeff Ward, CPCC. This cancer journey description is based on information provided by Jeff Ward – ©The Cancer Journey.)
Cancer has a way of sending life off the rails. One day, you’re going about your business, living your everyday life. The next day, you find out you have cancer, and suddenly life takes a major detour — totally unplanned, utterly unwelcomed, and for most of us, life is never the same again.
When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, my life took a sharp turn to a place I never expected to go.
To help people who have recently been diagnosed with cancer, this article presents the seven stages that many cancer patients go through. Obviously, some people experience other stages along their cancer journey, and I omitted a few of what I would call “minor stages” (such as denial, which Elisabeth Kübler-Ross covered so well in her Five Stages of Grief). The following seven stages are the big ones — the steps that most cancer patients experience on some level.
Unfortunately, cancer survivors don’t have a monopoly on these seven stages. People dealing with any life-threatening disease or life-altering event have similar experiences. Caregivers also go through these stages; the difference is a matter of perspective and degree. Caregivers are in the same experience as the people they are caring for, only the experience is not happening to them directly.
Seven Stages of Cancer
- Innocence – This is the stage right before the cancer diagnosis, where everything feels normal. Life is good. There is no sign of what is about to happen. You may have gone to the doctor’s because something felt “off,” but there is no hint of cancer at this point. Looking back, life looks so innocent and naive.For me, there were no symptoms, just a routine blood test during a yearly physical.
- The Call – This is when you first hear the word “cancer.” Perhaps you get some unusual test results back from your doctor. Your life is about to change, and you feel it deep inside. You are entering a new world, and you have no idea what’s ahead. It’s like you are being pushed off a cliff, and you’re fighting to find your footing.
When my doctor told me I tested positive for cancer, I almost fell off my chair. It instantly felt like my life was out of control. In fact, I was in denial. It felt like none of this was actually happening. My lab tests said one thing, but my body and mind were telling me that nothing was wrong.
- Initiation – This is the stage where you are introduced to (more like bombarded by) medical terms, tests, treatments and so on. You can’t get your mind around any of this. You feel bewildered, lost, physically and emotionally fatigued, and you’re not sure what’s next.Talking with doctors about treatment plans was entirely new and scary for me. Before I was diagnosed, I thought I was very healthy, which I was except for having prostate cancer.
- The Pit – The Pit is the low point in the journey. It’s all about fear, anxiety, and negative thoughts & emotions. You don’t know how you’ll ever get out of this. It is dark and lonely and unpleasant. You feel out of control on all levels – mind, body, and spirit.This is also the time of greatest personal growth — where you need to go within in order let go of old beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve you. Without these familiar beliefs and behaviors, you can begin to welcome new allies and a feeling of hope can return.I went into the pit fairly quickly after my diagnosis. My dad died from prostate cancer, so my mortality was front and center.
- Allies – Allies are anyone or anything that provides support, help, a sense of trust, or a forward direction. Allies can be people, spirituality, pets, nature, things, or whatever works for you. Allies are always there, but they take a special place in your life as you start letting go of old behaviors and limiting beliefs from the Pit Stage. As you rise out of the Pit and into the Allies Stage, you begin to understand how much you have changed from pre-cancer to today.Listening to the people who cared the most about me helped me to let go of my money and practical concerns, so I could focus on what was truly important for my healing.
- Breakthrough – This is a stage where hope returns — when you feel like you have more control of your life, where things start moving forward again. There is a renewed sense of having a future. You start to feel unstuck and that you are more in control of your life again. More importantly, you start doing things that reflect this new feeling of enthusiasm.When I started to heal from my treatment, and realized that I could come out of this OK. I started to feel more hopeful about beating cancer.
- Celebration – Imagine being on the medal podium, celebrating your achievement — this is the Celebration Stage. It is more than a place where you celebrate what you’ve been through, it is a place here you reflect on who you’ve become, and decide what you want to do from here. There is a sense of accomplishment. You recognize that the worst is over, and you’re a new person who has learned from what you’ve been through by embracing it. This is the new you and your new life. There is hope and possibility again.
When I got my follow-up test results and my doctor told me that I was cancer free, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I had been given a new lease on life — to live with more power and purpose than ever before.
The benefits of knowing where you are on this unplanned journey include
- Recognizing that this really is a journey, complete with unexpected twists and turns. Those twists and turns come in many forms: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. They are all part of the journey.
- Understanding that this healing journey is not a straight-line path and knowing where you are on this journey helps you deal with the uncertainties and fears that are part of a cancer diagnosis. This knowledge allows you to live with courage and conviction through this experience.
- Staying in touch with your raw emotions allows you to feel and acknowledge where you are at a deep level — without getting stuck there.
- Knowing that you are not alone on this journey helps you connect with others who have traveled this path before you, as well as the many people who are willing to walk by your side and help in any way they can.
- Learning to see cancer as a wake-up call gives you the courage to dump whatever emotional baggage you’ve been carrying around and embrace a new level of freedom and ease.
- Standing firm in the knowledge that most cancer patients will come out of this unplanned trip OK.
- Accepting that at some deep level cancer is an invitation to be your authentic self. Anything else robs you of your power and vitality.
Healing, dealing with, and overcoming cancer involves more than just getting the right medical treatment. It also calls into play the mental and spiritual dimensions. While navigating the cancer journey is obviously unpleasant, it is also a call for change. For those who survive, cancer offers them the opportunity to push “the re-set button of life.” How many people do you know who can honestly say that they were called to live a fuller, deeper, and more authentic life?
So, where are you on your cancer journey? What have you learned about yourself as you travel this road? What will be different about your life? I’d love to hear your responses. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org