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A Psychologist's Diary of Breast Cancer

by Anne-Marie Schuller(more info)

listed in cancer, originally published in issue 33 - October 1998

Shock, trauma, disbelief – such inadequate words for expressing the force of the tidal wave that hits you when you're told you have got cancer. I was 34 years old when breast cancer was diagnosed and since then my life has been radically transformed. I knew early on that it was up to me to overcome this disease by being active and positive. This meant being open to new ideas about myself as well as finding out as much as I could about this phenomenon called cancer. It was quite a challenge, particularly when I heard things that scared me. But then they always said knowledge was power, they never said anything about it being happiness. Talking of power, I quickly realised that this was not always seen in a constructive light by some of the professionals with whom I came into contact. For some, my determination to be a part of my own cure was viewed as threatening, or downright awkwardness. In addition, some people found it hard to treat me as a person, first and foremost, rather than the disease. I became more assertive over time and began reminding them. This was significant because I found that once I had got a label of cancer a whole machinery of appointments, treatments, hospitalisations and check-ups cranked itself into gear, particularly within the orthodox philosophy of health care. As I experienced a wide variety of therapies, both alternative and orthodox, it seemed important to remain an individual who had my own unique way of dealing with cancer and who would not allow myself to be swallowed up by any health system, no matter how well-organised. Certainly, I gained most benefit from those approaches where I was the focus of attention rather than the cancer itself. I gradually made the decision to work alongside people whom I could respect and trust and who accorded me the same. I found it worked.

I had good days and bad days. One of the hardest things was hearing people's attempts to 'cheer' me up. I knew their intentions were well-meaning but the accumulative effect was rather dispiriting. I knew from my professional background that positive thinking was fundamental in promoting health, but being positive is not always the same as feeling happy. There was also this lurking implication that people whose cancers were not cured had not thought positively enough. This seemed a dangerous trap to fall into and a potent way to lay a guilt trip on somebody. My view matured into understanding that being positive was about being honest and that there are times, when to express emotions of anxiety, fear and anger is the most positive thing to do. Over time I learned to do this more and more – a novel development for me who had always been so reserved.

Cancer is not a discrete event – it is an unfolding process where revelation and doubt, humour and pathos interweave – a process of constant adjustment, often raw but never futile. It is a time of great paradox, for I look back at things that at first seemed so terrible and now perceive how many doors they have unlocked. And things I once believed were so right I now would no longer choose. Being active has also meant increased awareness. A tidal wave did, indeed, strike me but in its wake it has left a land that is both awesome and fertile.

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About Anne-Marie Schuller

Anne-Marie Schuller BSc MSc C. Psychol is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with many years experience in clinical practice, training and consultative work, within and outside the NHS. In 1995 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This experience has shaped both her life and her professional work and is chronicled in her book Patient Power – a psychologist's diary of breast cancer. She is particularly interested in proactive approaches to overcoming cancer and is currently involved with a number of other professional groups addressing this issue. Anne-Marie can be contacted on 01253 730827.

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