April. I’ll re-enter society in April. I’ll be back to normal in April. That was what I had repeated to myself for months during a self-imposed quarantine, starting in August when I started treatment for an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis I received last year at 34 years old.
April was when all the chemo treatments and surgeries would be behind me, and I imagined I would be looking and feeling energized. Like all of you, I wasn’t planning on April being a time of self-isolation and social-distancing (round 2 or week 36, but who's counting), but it is and what the recent weeks of this pandemic has allowed me to reflect on are the similarities to being diagnosed with cancer and the great takeaways that a pause of self-isolation can offer.
Like you, the recent weeks have been shocking and unearthed a number of emotions including frustration, fear, lack of control, and ultimately a great sense of the unknown. The world is trying to wrap its head around what’s happening, and we’re processing it alone, yet together.
Much like cancer, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. One day you’re living your life, and the next your reality is turned upside down. All of our lives have been turned upside down, in some ways that we can identify and in many other ways we don’t yet know. The present situation also causes us (many for the first time) to face mortality and ask the questions: are we living the life we want? What’s missing? What no longer works?
My cancer experience (something that still feels like a foreign concept to me as I write this) has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. From it, I became lighter and also deeper, more vulnerable, more compassionate, and more focused. Since I got a headstart and previewed self-isolation ahead of most of you, I offer some advice in navigating this time. I encourage you to be open to what this experience can teach you and where it can take you.
1. Acceptance. Okay, this is happening.
I don’t share this word lightly with my hands in prayer and a bow, because some things are just really hard to accept and it’s our instinct to fight the acceptance with all our might. Maybe because we’re used to getting our way, or maybe because we just don’t want the thing we’re having to accept, but one absolute truth is: the sooner we accept, the sooner we can move to the next phase.
The day I was diagnosed with cancer, my dear friend Kristina took me to dinner and stared at me and very directly said: “You have cancer.” I heard her. In that moment, I accepted the reality and could then focus on everything that follows. Okay, this is happening, what’s next? Please hear me and accept that we’re self-isolating. Accept that the way of life that we know is and will be different. Accept that you lost your job. Accept that you’re scared. Accept it all, because it’s already here. And through this acceptance we can move into what’s next. If it’ll help, say it outloud 3 times. Sometimes our ears need to hear it in order to process it, even if the words come from yourself. If you push something away, it’s still there. You have to go through it to get through it.
2. Find What You Can Control.
Our minds are really complex. When we can’t control one thing, we often redistribute the control elsewhere. This is the subconscious origin of anxiety, stress, and mental disorders. Since there is so much we cannot control right now, find the things you can own, even if that is only your mindset and reaction. Find a place to channel that energy. For me, I channeled my control energy towards battling with my insurance company. For you, it might be towards setting up a fitness routine, job searching, or taking a course online, but find the ways you can still feel in control in a reality where so much is out of our control. What can you work on daily, for the next 8 weeks?
3. Embrace Uncertainty.
Last week, a friend sent me a sweet quote on Instagram that made me smile. Bob Goff says: “Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters of our lives won't have a title until much later.” When I was diagnosed, I made a commitment to myself, that I wanted the good things in my future life to stem back to having cancer, so that when I looked back I could only be grateful. Even just 8 months later, my entire life is different from the connections, experiences, and opportunities that unfolded during my time with cancer. There’s no going back to “normal.” Our norm is always in flow, so embrace this time and what future, unknown experiences will unfold because of it.
4. Everyone’s Experience Is Different.
As friends connected me with other friends that were my age, also going through the same diagnosis, I realized the uniqueness of each of our experiences. Our treatment plans, reactions, approaches were all different. Not one was the same. But perhaps most importantly, I recognized that for those people around me – family, friends, coworkers – my diagnosis became a unique experience for them, too. One that was just as real as my own.
During this time, as we all navigate these changes, it’s important to recognize that everyone’s experience is different and that’s where they are and it’s as real for them as your experience is for you and everyone is going through challenges that are unique to them. Be compassionate and understand that this is happening because you really never know what people are going through.
5. Find The Opportunities.
In times of dramatic disruption, there are also always opportunities. Find where there are opportunities that provide you access to something you’re currently interested in or frustrated by. Nothing about this experience is fair or feels good or is what we know to be normal. It’s weird and strange and scary but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities. Find the opportunities in the unknown and become comfortable with the uncomfortable. What are the things you can do or explore now that you can’t usually do during “normal” times?
6. Ask For Help: Interdependence Over Independence.
Friends and family know that this was the most challenging for me. For most of my life, I prided myself on my sense of independence and it was incredibly humbling to outwardly acknowledge that I needed support, but most challenging to acknowledge that inwardly, to acknowledge that to myself. Over the past 8 months, this continues to be a lesson I’m constantly relearning, and rewiring my thinking on. Three key takeaways: 1) You can survive on your own, but you cannot thrive on your own. We are communal beings and need to be supported. 2) Share what you need. If you don’t ask, people can’t know. 3) People want to help you. Give them the opportunities to support you.
7. Be Nice To My Friend.
I say this to my friends and they say it to me as a reminder that when we talk badly about ourselves, we’re being mean to our friend’s friend. Sometimes framing it that way can help be a little gentler with ourselves and our expectations. As a New Yorker, always on the go, there were moments that I felt discouraged when I didn’t have the energy to maintain my pre-diagnosis routine or when the treatment caused me to crave, and subsequently eat, burritos (yes, carb craving is a very real, cruel and ironic side effect of chemotherapy treatment). While we’re going through the coronavirus waves of emotions, please remember to be nice to my friend as you talk to yourself and allow space to give your body, mind, and soul what it needs.
8. Stop Trying To Understand ‘Why.’
As a supporter of “Start With Why,” Simon Sinek may challenge me on this. In situations like we’re going through now, I suggest stopping with ‘why.’ Don’t spend the energy trying to understand why you lost your job, why you got sick, why you didn't do something differently a year ago, or in my case why I got cancer. Instead ask yourself, am I going to be captive to my circumstances? It’s easy to spiral in our thoughts of ‘Why?’ or ‘Why me?’ but that answer doesn’t exist so you’re better off putting that energy towards actionable next steps, or even watching “Tiger King.” At least you’ll learn something new!
9. It’s Okay To Be Sad, But Don’t Be Stuck.
If you’re sad or frustrated or mad, be those things but don’t get stuck in those emotions. Acknowledge and embrace those feelings, because they are real. So when they come, allow them space to exist, and then allow them space to leave, and then allow them space to come back again (which they will, until they no longer do). Be mindful of not getting stuck into a downward spiral of emotions. It’s your responsibility to catch yourself and say “I see you sad feelings, let’s go watch ‘Law and Order: SVU,’ but then you have to leave.” Tara Brach says that, “At any time, no matter the situation, you are only three breaths from home.” Take three deep breaths, count in for five, hold for five, let out slowly for 8-10 seconds. Rinse and Repeat.
10. Do Things That Make You Feel Good.
Wake up, get dressed, move, dance, cook, watch TikToks, do your hair, workout, sing, do whatever it is that makes you feel good. Just be sure to carve out time to do those things. Everything is evolving right now so lean into the things you know make you happy. For me, making my bed and having a clean space makes me feel happy and removes – at least in some way – part of life’s current clutter so I make a point to maintain that. Being grateful and journaling or even just acknowledging 2-3 things you’re grateful for every day, shifts your brain to see gratitude over scarcity. If you’re reading this, there are things to be grateful for. There’s no rule book for this, just recognize what makes you feel good and surround yourself with it.
In race car driving, when a driver comes to a turn, they brake in order to then accelerate. Braking to break through is by all accounts logically paradoxical. But in these moments of life pause, we’re challenged to explore inward and accelerate step by step forward with vulnerability and strength, determination and acceptance. Remember: this too, shall pass.
Rebecca is a consumer marketing and intellectual property expert focused on product launch, corporate innovation, and brand integration. With a focus on emerging tech and consumer trends, she's frequently quoted in publications like Popular Mechanics and Adweek and guest lecturers for Fulbright and NYU. She has a Master of Laws in Intellectual Property. Diagnosed with breast cancer at 34, Rebecca advocates for wellness and shares her experience to inspire others to have control over their health journeys and to influence systematic change.
Read Rebecca’s original BodyTalk interview from her first week of treatment last fall.