Woman cancer survivor looking hopeful out her living room window

Small steps carry you a long way on cancer journey

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, your whole life changes.

You have to curtail certain activities, perhaps even stop working. Treatments can tax you physically. Uncertainty can drain you mentally. Family and friends might treat you differently, even if they don’t mean to.

What to do?

Give yourself grace

A positive attitude is an important part of your survivorship journey, but that’s not easy to achieve. People aren’t equipped with a button that instantly changes darkness to light.

Fighting cancer is a process. So take it one step at a time. Count every small step as a victory. Remember, lots of small steps eventually take you a long way.

A good place to start is being honest and gracious with yourself, said Jozie Allen, LCSW, a counselor with OSF Cancer Support Services.

“You can’t act like nothing has happened. Acknowledge your feelings,” Jozie said. “If you struggle some days, that’s OK. It’s OK to take a break, or if you need a mental health day from work or household duties. You have to give yourself the grace to not be OK sometimes.”

It’s OK to grieve

In some ways, cancer survivorship is similar to the grieving process.

“We can grieve changes in lifestyle, too,” Jozie said. “When you get a diagnosis, there’s initial shock, then everything else follows: depression, anger, fear.

“Part of grieving is ultimately accepting the loss, to some extent. Do you have to be happy? No. But to move through life, you come to an acceptance. You find something else to keep you active or to stimulate something similar or equal to the joy you used to have.”

Draw on personal experience

A good early step is to increase your self-awareness. What’s most important to you? What are your goals and priorities?

“Think about your upbringing and what events shaped you as a person,” Jozie said.

“People who have had difficulties in the past tend to have more resilience. If you’ve had any kind of traumatic or difficult life situation, draw on that. How did you make it through that difficult experience? It’s a strength you can use now. Build on that.

“On the flip side, maybe you haven’t had those negative experiences. This, too, can be utilized as a strength when we use it to be grateful for our blessings and seek to find additional blessings during this difficult time.”

Embrace your routine

When it comes to daily living, make a point to enjoy little things. A shower. A glass of juice. Five minutes reading a chapter from the Bible. A sunrise or sunset.

Cancer survivor trying on new clothes

“Be present in the moment,” Jozie said. “Use your five senses. Soak in all those sounds, smells, a breeze, kids laughing. Step back and absorb those things going on around you and think about how they make you feel.”

Setting up a daily routine can help. Establish a quiet time. Make lists. Keep a journal. Plan trips you’d like to take. Exercise. Start a small garden. Perhaps you can even begin to incorporate some of the pleasurable things you did before your diagnosis.

You begin to look forward to certain activities, and they become special. When you do them, you might even feel victorious. So why not create a chart – like the ones many parents use to incentivize good behavior by their kids – and give yourself a gold star?

“Sometimes those mundane, day-to-day tasks can bring joy back into your life,” Jozie said. “Try to stay connected to those things that have always brought you joy – family things, spiritual things, hobbies. Whatever helps you find peace, do it.” Jozie said.

Support from others

Joining a support group can also help.

Every individual is unique, but people with cancer share a common bond of experience. They know what it’s like to spend hours in waiting rooms to get poked, prodded and treated.

Hearing stories from other people with similar experience can help validate your own journey. They can help mitigate your feeling of isolation. They can encourage you to keep making those small steps. Sharing your own story can also bring you the joy of helping others.

“There are other people who have gone through this, or are going through something similar, and they’re making it,” Jozie said. “You can, too.”

Last Updated: April 20, 2022

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Cancer