From Existential Crisis to Existential Growth After Cancer

“Being a psychotherapist significantly helped me on my journey but did not save me from an existential crisis.”

After being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in November 2022. I went through five months of chemotherapy, including the infamous “Red Devil” and a subsequent double mastectomy with reconstruction.

Being a psychotherapist significantly helped me on my journey but did not save me from an existential crisis. My life changed instantly in a matter of a phone call and never became the same, at first in the worst possible way and then in the best possible way.

I think despite where we are in terms of treatment (just received a diagnosis, waiting for treatment to start, in the middle of the treatment, after successful or unsuccessful treatment) we are inevitably thinking about death, the meaning of life, what we can lose and how other people will live without us. These thoughts followed me through my whole journey, and I reshaped them from scary, uncomfortable and ruminating to neutral, comforting and motivating. It took time and significant effort to think and act differently, which in turn changed my feelings about it. Death is the inevitable conclusion to my life, and it should not paralyze me; it should inspire and motivate me to live my life to the fullest.

Between learning about the diagnosis and the beginning of my treatments was the most difficult emotional time for me. I experienced disbelief, acceptance and a lot of catastrophizing thoughts (thinking of the worst possible outcomes). So, it was an existential crisis to its fullest expression. I could not sleep, it was difficult to enjoy holidays and life in general, and it was difficult to breathe — this is where my inner psychotherapist started to guide me.

I truly applied my knowledge and followed a thought: if I was my client what would I suggest to my client. First of all, I needed to improve my sleep, because sleep deprivation leads to faster cognitive and physical exhaustion, which contributes to elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety and inhibition of the immune system. I really needed my immune system to work at its fullest. I applied various strategies to improve sleep quality and its length, including chamomile tea, relaxing showers, sudoku puzzles, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, talking to my physician, etc. Sleep did not return to normal but got significantly better compared to my first week after diagnosis.

In addition to my sleep, I needed to work on my stress, anxiety and catastrophizing thoughts. That took some time to master. I constantly reminded myself to focus on facts instead of the worst possible outcomes and to practice mindfulness and just focus on one day at a time. Did it help me to conquer an existential crisis? No, but it was the beginning of the process ask necessary to go through.

In January 2023 my chemotherapy started, and emotional challenges changed to physical ones. “Red Devil” treatment affected me so horrifically that it became the most challenging experience in my life. The amount of pain, feeling unwell everywhere, difficulty performing daily tasks, extreme sensitivity to smells and many other expected and unexpected side effects were something I never experienced before and required me to think and act differently.

I turned to my support group, oncologist, nurses and science to guide me. I was strategic about my medication intake, I had multiple alarm to remind me to take it; I walked every day even on days when I could not stand straight; and I used stress balls to alleviate physical tension and refocus my attention from feeling unwell. I was writing down times and emerging side effects to see a pattern or to find a solution. I always used Google Scholar instead of just Googling because I noticed a lot of information was contradictory and unreliable. I kept focusing on one day at a time, readjusted my work schedule and reduced work hours to accommodate my treatment and recovery from treatment.

When I adjusted to a new routine existential questions started to come back and fear of dying started to haunt me again. I did not want to be defined as a person with cancer and I did not want to be afraid. If I die one day, I want to make each count even if it is something small. On the first day when I felt well and not in pain I went on a hike, in two weeks I went to a museum, in another two weeks I went to an archery class that I always wanted to try, etc. I started a new active life that I did not have prior to my cancer diagnosis and as of today I am maintaining it. I am still redefining and exploring myself and building my life to make each day count.

This post was written and submitted by a CURE reader. The article reflects the views the author and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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