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As an 11-year breast cancer survivor, I feel it is important to address a topic that is often not openly discussed or acknowledged often enough in the cancer community: the power we can find in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable throughout the cancer journey.
While positivity has its place and can lift our spirits, at times, it is crucial we recognize that not every moment will be filled with sunshine and rainbows when overcoming this disease.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I initially felt I had to remain strong and project an openly positive attitude. It seemed society expected me to handle the roller coaster of emotions with a stoic resilience that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around. However, I soon discovered that forcing optimism during the darkest time in my life not only added to my feelings of guilt but also took away my ability to process how I was really feeling inside.
It is important to remember that cancer is not just a physical battle; it takes an immense toll on our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. From the time of diagnosis throughout treatment, and even beyond remission into survivorship, we experience a wide range of feelings: fear, anger, sadness, uncertainty, and moments of vulnerability. There is power in acknowledging all that we feel rather than suppressing any part of our experience.
Brené Brown, one of my favorite authors, has superb insight into feelings of vulnerability, as she states:
“Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.”
Perhaps it is society’s discomfort with the idea of vulnerability that leads to the expectation of an ever-present positive attitude—a constant smile in the face of pain. This is not the natural state of humans let alone facing a life threatening illness. Instead, let’s embrace these emotions with compassion for ourselves, as that can be both empowering and instrumental in the healing process. Realizing that it is okay and acceptable to not always wear a brave face or smile radiantly can help us face our fears head-on and therefore come out even stronger at the end of the day.
Throughout my own cancer survivorship experience, I found relief in connecting with other breast cancer survivors who were willing to share their experiences in all their raw, unfiltered messiness. Their honesty and authenticity gave me the courage to acknowledge and express my own complicated mix of emotions without judgment. Through these connections, I learned that vulnerability does not equate to weakness, but rather to strength, resilience, and authenticity.
It is important to remember that every survivor’s experience is unique, and reaching acceptance and positivity is a deeply personal walk. Giving ourselves permission to feel the full spectrum of emotions that come with breast cancer, even those that are uncomfortable, is key to our emotional well-being and healing. According to Katherine Cullen, MFA, LCSW of Psychology Today, “Suppressing our emotions deprives us of key information about our values, motivations, needs, and boundaries.”
It is perfectly normal and human to have days when we feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and even hopeless. Allowing ourselves to experience and express these emotions is not a sign of defeat, weakness, or pessimism; it is a testament to our strength and capacity to face the challenges ahead with compassion for what we are enduring and the clarity to see us through.
So, why not start to create a safe space where stories of pain, fear, and vulnerability can be shared without judgment and a sense of empowerment. Let us encourage one another to embrace the rough waves of emotions that breast cancer brings, knowing that it is through these moments that we discover our true courage, resilience, and human connectedness.
To all those currently are or who have ever faced breast cancer, remember that you are not alone in your journey and your emotions are worthy and valid of sharing, no matter how bleak you may feel at the moment. It is empowering to let your guard down, to be honest about your struggles, and to surround yourself with a support network that understands the power that can be found in this vulnerability. Our true strength lies not in always maintaining a smiling face, but in finding the courage to deal with our situation genuinely while embracing this roller-coaster ride in all its messy, complicated glory.