It’s always exciting to be a guest writer on someone else’s blog. Last year, I was honored to be asked to contribute two articles to Shannon Miller’s Lifestyle online magazine. This article is the first one  that I wrote for the woman who is known as America’s Most Decorated Olympic Gymnast and the only woman to be inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame–twice. Shannon was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in 2011 and has a strong interest in helping others who are facing a battle with cancer. 

We’ve done the biopsy and it’s cancer. We’re very sorry. The doctor will meet with you in a few minutes.”

That was the call from surgery where our sixteen-year-old son, Nick, was lying on the table. In the few seconds that it took the surgeon to call, life came to a stomach lurching stop—my husband and I were unable to think, move, or even breathe.

As someone who has worked with people going through intense challenges for over thirty years, and as a woman who has supported both her son and her husband through cancer, I know what just how difficult those first few days and hours are after hearing that you or a loved one has cancer. What happens—to your body, your mind, your emotions–when your life cracks open? How do you move forward when it seems impossible to take a breath, much less take purposeful action? I have found that two of the most critical steps you can take are to find your way through the initial shock of the diagnosis and regain your balance.

Handling the initial shock

What’s going on in that body that may seem suddenly foreign, perhaps dangerous right now? Your limbic system has gone into crisis mode, responding to the fear or anxiety that you are feeling, getting it ready to flight, fight or flee. Because of this, your frontal lobe, that place of logical thought, has been pushed to the background and you may find yourself unable to think straight or process information. Given this mental and physical state of affairs, there are three ways you can help yourself cope:

Get centered. If you are like most people, right after you have heard that the diagnosis was cancer, your shocked reaction disconnected you from an awareness of your body. You likely forgot to breathe, eat or pay attention to your surroundings—causing you to bump into things or stumble. I know I did. You have a lot of information to process and decisions to make, but before you do that, you have to get back into your body. Try these three strategies anytime you feel spacey, unfocused, or panicky:

  • Breathe—Sit down with your feet flat on the ground, posture comfortable but erect. Put one of your hands on your stomach and the other over your heart. Slowly and deeply breathe, making the out-breath longer than the in-breath. When you breathe, your lower diaphragm should inflate, moving the hand that is resting on it but leaving the hand on your chest still. Repeat 5 times.
  • Rub—Getting back into your body means feeling it. In a seated position, with your shoes off, shuffle your feet back and forth, feeling the friction on the bottom of your feet. Then rapidly rub your hands on your thighs, from your pelvis to your knees. Note the feeling on your hands, feet and thighs.
  • Move—Go for a jog, exercise, or simply march in place. We know that movement helps decrease the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that have flooded your brain as well as create endorphins—the feel good hormones. Finding just a few minutes to move your body will help reduce your anxiety and help get your brain back on line.

Slow down. There are many decisions to be made when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you will want to give them the attention they deserve. While some of those decisions may be urgent and time-limited, most are not. You may need the time to process the information, consult with family or friends, or enlist the assistance of experts before coming to an answer that is best for you. Some things to consider:

  • Ask questions–For example, you can ask[1] Which decisions must be made now? Is it a preference, a suggestion, or a necessity to act immediately? What are the consequences of putting off the decision for 24-48 hours? What are the pros and cons of each option? (If the decision must be made immediately.) How can I get a second opinion and who can help me do that quickly? Once you’ve asked the questions, be sure to allow yourself enough time to process the information, either by yourself or with someone you trust.
  • Take a break—with everything that is swirling around in your head, it can be hard to think straight. Sometimes the best decision that you can make is to not make the decision yet. Spending fifteen to twenty minutes concentrating on something other than your crisis will give the neurochemicals rushing around in your brain time to calm down so that it is easier to think through the options. Try making a cup of tea (or other hot beverage), writing out your thoughts, or talking to a friend.
  • Clear your schedule—most people will understand that you’ve had a medical emergency that requires your absence. This is not the time to let your inner superwoman take charge, like my friend who accepted a new job—right after being diagnosed with breast cancer! Reschedule, say “not right now,” or defer as much as you can. You need all of your energy focused on this crisis. You are worth it!

Regaining your balance

Finding a way forward means first finding solid ground, even when everything around you is changing. It’s easy to focus on what is wobbly. Life as you have known it, can seem to be giving way to new people, strange medications, offices and treatment rooms that you’ve never seen before. Your emotions, too, may be constantly shifting—anxiety, fear, anger–all are normal….and unsettling. It is more helpful, I have found, to look for those things that steady you. Two of those anchors are finding a lifeline and choosing your mindset, so that you can find your way forward.

Find a lifeline. For many people, the automatic response to a bone-jarring shock like a cancer diagnosis is to hunker down, to isolate. While it is normal to do so initially, research has shown that significantly better outcomes for those who have a community of support[2]. At the same time, it is important to think about what you need. Is it someone to take charge, listen to you vent, hold you or help you start to plan? If you don’t have supportive family and friends who can be available to you, consider finding a therapist, someone from your place of worship or a support group. As you decide who to call on, look for someone who:

  • Will bring a positive attitude and thoughtfulness in their words or actions,
  • Has good judgment,
  • Can maintain confidentiality, if that is important to you,
  • Understands who you are and how you want to manage this process, and
  • Is compassionate and honest enough to give you feedback when you need it.

As you go further down the road, you will likely want to build a larger community of support, encompassing people who bring different perspectives, skills, and expertise than you have. But for now, this is about finding someone who will walk alongside of you through these early days. Having someone to hang on to makes the journey infinitely easier.

Choose your mindset. In the best-selling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl makes a statement that changed my life—professionally and personally. Writing about his survival in a concentration camp that took his brother, his parents and his wife, Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

With a life changing diagnosis such as cancer, it is normal to feel that you have lost control of your life. You didn’t invite cancer in and you can’t ask it to leave; it just showed up and now you have to deal with it. But I have found there is something that you still have control over—your mindset. In my work with clients across the globe, I have found that answering one question, “Who do you want to be, in this circumstance?” provides an anchor for them, something to hold on to, in the toughest of times. So, ask yourself the following questions[3]:

  • Who do I want to be?
  • How do I want to get through this?
  • What qualities and characteristics do I want to demonstrate, even when times get tough?
  • What values do I want to embody?

Setting your mindset is also not about being some kind of super being who never gets angry or feels hopeless. It’s a positive, grounding step we can take to be our best and most authentic selves, even when nothing else seems controllable. And, if you’re like me, you will sometimes fail spectacularly. That’s ok. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about having something we can do, that is uniquely us and that no one can take away from us.

A cancer diagnosis, for you or for a loved one, feels like a body blow-it takes your breath away and can completely disorient you. You can make it through the initial days by getting more grounded and making decisions thoughtfully, rather than reactively. Reaching out for support and deciding, for yourself, what your mindset will be in the days to come, can make the difference between feeling out of control and alone and operating with a focus and from a sense of personal authority—even when you can’t change anything else.

In the next article, I will talk about handling the hard and scary stuff by learning to manage your thoughts and face your fears. I would love to hear from you in the month ahead—what would you like to know?

[1] Taken from “The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times,” by Susan Johnson Mecca, Ph.D.

[2] Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont)4(5), 35–40.

[3] The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times