By Marley Cameron
Living with cancer as a young adult is difficult. At this time in our lives, we are just starting to figure out who we are and are just becoming comfortable with who that person is. This is a challenging task in itself, never mind adding a life altering illness into the mix.
One thing I know for sure is that I am not the same person I was before being diagnosed with cancer. Cancer brings inevitable changes in so many areas of our lives which can change our outlook on life as a whole. When we experience a traumatic event, such as a cancer diagnosis, not only do we experience negative changes, but we can often see positive changes as well.
I was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, shortly after I had turned 20. When I reflect back on this time, I can admit that amongst the challenges and hardships I have faced, I have seen glimpses of post traumatic growth. However, I know that post traumatic growth does not come as easily for others going through a traumatic event as it did for me.
I recently led a virtual chat with several of my peers from Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) who have also experienced cancer as a young adult. I was shocked to learn that the majority of those individuals did not believe that they had undergone any post traumatic growth.
If hosting a chat on personal growth taught me anything, it was that growth after cancer is not linear. Each person has such a unique experience with their illness, and as a result, we all grow and change at our own speed.
Comparing our levels of growth with those of our peers can be a dangerous game. The idea that we need to grow despite our trauma can leave us feeling like we are failing at having cancer. Seeing so many strong and “heroic” cancer figures in the media often leaves us feeling pressured to have a defining, life changing moment. But the reality is, not everyone will have an “aha!” experience. What we fail to see in the media are the in between days. The days where we are struggling, suffering, and simply existing. I believe it is through these days when we undergo the most inner growth, the days where humility meets gratitude and grief finds grace.
Recognizing growth is not always an easy task. According to the American Psychological Association, post traumatic growth occurs in five main areas:
- Appreciation for life
- Relationships with others
- New possibilities in life
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change*
Personally, my post traumatic growth started with mindset. I began to journal the areas of my life that I was grateful for. Truth be told, in the beginning, it was difficult to find the glimmers of light in an otherwise dark period of my life. My body was failing to keep up with my expectations, my friends were no where to be found, and I lost any sense of dignity that I once had.
Making a conscious effort to find gratitude for everything that I did have was a way to remind myself that my life was not over just because I was ill. My gratitude journal allowed me to end my days on a positive note and before I knew it, my outlook on life began to change. When my mindset improved, I became more in tune with myself for the first time since my diagnosis. The “pre cancer” Marley was social and surrounded herself with family and friends though, admittedly, I took my relationships for granted.
The “post cancer” Marley pours gratitude into the people I choose to surround myself with. I am more intentional in my friendships and make a conscious effort to allow people who not only see me beyond my illness, but who help to uplift me as well. I draw strength and inspiration from the gratitude, the appreciation for life, and the positive people around me. This is what allows me to continue to grow despite my illness.
Perhaps you have someone in your life who is on their own journey of personal growth. The best thing you can do for them is to just be there. No one gets to decide how much growth a person has to do.
The best thing we can do to help someone going through a traumatic life event is to be present and to uplift them in any way that we can, remind them that they are loved, show them that you are there to help, and help them understand it is okay not to be okay.
If you are a fellow cancer thriver who is struggling to see personal growth through your illness, look no further. You may be having a hard time seeing growth through the thick of cancer, but I am not. I see you. I hear you and I can feel your inner strength. Today you made a choice to read my words, likely in hopes of finding something, or someone, you can relate to. The want to connect, to know that you are not alone. That is powerful, my friend. That is growth.
* Collier, L. (2016). Growth after Trauma. American Psychological Association. 47(10), 48 https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma
American Society of Clinical Oncology. (2019, March). Post-Traumatic Growth and Cancer. Cancer.Net. https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/life-after-cancer/post-traumatic-growth-and-cancer#:~:text=The%20term%20%22post%2Dtraumatic%20growth,not%20the%20same%20as%20resilience.
Ackerman, C. E. (2020, September 23). 10 Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) Worksheets & Practices. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/post-traumatic-growth-worksheets/