I feared I wasn’t strong enough.

Written by Elysa Merlin

As I write this, it marks the week, three years ago, that so drastically changed my life. I was 32 years old when I was told that the headaches I had been suffering from for several months were actually being caused by a lesion on my brain and that I would need brain surgery right away to remove the tumor sitting above my right frontal lobe.

If, as a brain tumor survivor, you are at all like me, then you can relate to that moment after having received such news when you are thrust into an alternate reality – not of your choosing. All of a sudden your everyday life comes to a dramatic halt, leading way to a new normal filled with unfamiliarity and uncertainty. At the time I received this news I was a first-time mother to a 5-month-old and, within a short period of receiving the news, I also left a toxic marriage. My life had become nearly unrecognizable from what it was just two weeks earlier, having paused my career as an attorney to tend to my health and undergo treatment, all while taking care of my newborn daughter.  Despite the overwhelming support that I received from my family and friends, I did not hesitate from early on to connect with a mental health professional to offer me additional guidance and aid during this time.

I could not have made it through the weeks of my diagnosis and treatment without the support of my therapist, who I met with virtually around two times per week. The biggest issues that my therapist helped me through were my fears and anxieties.

I feared my life would never go back to normal.

I feared I wouldn’t see my daughter grow up.

I feared I wasn’t strong enough.

One of the most helpful exercises that my therapist coached me through was, after writing down all of my fears (and I had a list of 17), to come up with the converse to each of those fears, which, in and of themselves, turned into mantras for me and still are today.

I can handle all that is given to me.

My treatment is a path to my health and is a small stepping-stone and a means to my vibrant existence.

Every day I surprise myself with my inner strength.

Before treatment started, I wrote out all of these mantras on a poster board which I kept on my bathroom mirror.  There were hard days during treatment, but having these messages at eye level served as a great reminder of my goals and my strength.

My therapist also opened the door for me to begin a practice in meditation and visualization. At the start of my treatment, I took oral chemotherapy one hour before I went for radiation each day. At my therapist’s encouragement, I made a routine of listening to a guided meditation before taking my pill. Then, before swallowing my pill, I visualized exactly what the pill was going to do when it entered my body and what the outcome would be when it was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing in my body. I was grateful for this routine, which grounded me and made me feel stronger in this period. Today I still maintain a practice in meditation and believe strongly in the correlation of relaxing one’s mind with enabling the body’s ability to fight disease.

I would encourage anyone handling a cancer diagnosis to engage a therapist to navigate the unparalleled challenges that come up.  Many cancer centers offer access to mental health professionals, as well as alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, nutritionists, or even reiki healing, which may be subsidized or covered by insurance. I took advantage of what was offered at my cancer center and also explored alternative medicine approaches through outside professionals and literature. So much is out of our hands when it comes to a cancer diagnosis, but I believe in the importance of focusing on the physical, emotional, and spiritual factors that we may be able to control as a way to survive cancer.

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