• Julie Wheelan

Finding Joy During Uncertainty

By Julie Wheelan

Music legend Bob Marley once wrote, “You never know how strong you are until strong is your only choice,” and, for many people, this sentiment rings more true now than ever before.

This is a frightening time. We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, with billions of lives turned upside down. Many people have been directly impacted; others are bracing for what is still to come. Every one of us is swirling in a tsunami of uncertainty and wondering, “What is going to happen next?”

At its core, uncertainty makes it difficult for us to prepare for and reduce the negative impact of a potential future event, and this loss of control creates anxiety1. Without knowing how we might be impacted or how bad things will get, spiraling into overwhelming dread and panic becomes all too easy.

Unfortunately, for anyone touched by cancer — especially, metastatic cancer — this “fear of the unknown” is all too familiar. Cancer and uncertainty go hand in hand. Upon hearing the words “You have cancer,” we often lose our footing. Our confidence in moving forward with life plans vanishes. Known reference points in our lives disappear. The normalcy we took for granted only yesterday evaporates in an instant. But with resiliency and courage born of necessity, the majority of cancer patients bravely press on in the face of this uncertainty by summoning courage they never knew they had and by assembling tools and support to manage their uncertainty-fueled stress, anxiety and fear.

There are strong parallels between the emotions brought on by pandemic uncertainty and the emotions experienced during a cancer journey; likewise, the means for successfully coping with each are also similar. What researchers and therapists know is that de-escalating stress starts with our ability to self-regulate and, when it comes to self-regulating, nothing is more important than breath and movement.[2,3] Without these two vital actions, stress accumulates in our bodies. A growing body of research demonstrates the efficacy of practices such as meditation and yoga to reduce distress and anxiety (and to alleviate fatigue and improve sleep and quality of life) during cancer treatment.[4] Although we are still studying exactly how these practices work, we do know that directing attention to present-moment bodily sensations, such as breath, can help curtail our wandering minds, which is one of the hallmarks of anxiety.

Our ability to self-regulate also starts with expanding our vocabulary — either through self-reflection or with the help of a trained professional — to more accurately articulate and express what we are feeling.  When “feeling stressed,” for example, is further nuanced into emotions such as helplessness, shame, irritation, anger, confusion, disconnect, conflict, loneliness, sadness, or fear, we gain a more precise understanding of our true feelings.  This helps us better understand the origin of the discomfort, which then allows for more constructive conversations and solutions.

Beyond breath, movement and expanded vocabulary, other proven ways to cope with unpleasant feelings brought on by uncertainty include:

  • Music [5]

  • Psychotherapy [6]

  • Art and other creative activities [7]

  • Exposure to nature [8]

  • Gardening [9]

  • Socializing with others [10]

By engaging in these activities, we are able to reclaim moments of joy, experience greater mental calm, and shape a new normal for ourselves despite the many challenges life presents.












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