A Thrust Into Vulnerability

TON - December 2013 Vol 6 No 11 — December 20, 2013

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”
–Brené Brown

As a cancer survivor and advocate, it has bewildered me how differently cancer patients and survivors perceive their cancer journeys. This variation in outlook ranges from being stuck in a state of fear, anger, shame, or blame, to viewing cancer as a “gift.” While watching Dr Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, which can be defined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” I realized that this is a key element in what shapes one’s cancer experience.

Brown refers to her “breakdown/ spiritual awakening” and the year she spent in therapy coming to grips with her own vulnerability, a process she sought in her effort to research the factors that determine who suffers and who thrives through life’s ups and downs. Unlike Brown, cancer patients are not seeking opportunities to face their vulnerability. Much like Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, hearing the words “you have cancer” thrusts us quite suddenly into a world of inescapable vulnerability. In an instant, our health, mortality, self-identity, independence, and relationships are all in question. An overwhelming sense of vulnerability haunts us through, and often after, the cancer journey.

Despite the shock, pain, and fear that come with a cancer diagnosis, there are those who not only bounce back, but feel their lives have been improved by their cancer experience. According to Brown, these wholehearted individuals have the ability to cultivate courage, compassion, and connection in their daily lives and hence experience positive growth from even the most negative situations. Brown finds that a common thread among the wholehearted is their ability to embrace vulnerability and own their story.

We are conditioned to believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and thus avoid situations that remind us of our own. Once diagnosed with cancer, we experience a level of vulnerability few of us ever imagined. Time and support from others enable some of us to process, accept, and adapt to the multitude of changes thrust upon us by a cancer diagnosis, while others never quite accept nor adjust to life with and after cancer. Brown counsels that it is those who can accept and even embrace their vulnerability who turn life’s challenges into gateways to courage, compassion, and connection.

Courage: While we may view vulnerability in ourselves as weakness, we often perceive it as courage in others. It takes courage to show our imperfections, let go of who we think we should be, and accept who we are. Norma, a metastatic cancer survivor, said, “I found that with 6 broken vertebrae in my back, I couldn’t do many things I used to, which made me (independent me) have to ask for help. My condition made me have to request special considerations, better chairs, cushions, closer parking, etc. I hated drawing attention to myself that way, but it was unavoidable. This to me was courage, courage to accept that things had changed, that my old carefree and healthy existence was gone, and that I could either give up or pull up my big-girl panties and move forward. I chose the latter.”

Compassion: In our search for compassion, we need someone who embraces us for both our strengths and our struggles. Compassion is a relationship between equals. We draw from our own experiences of struggle and fear so that we can be present and empathize with the struggles and fears of others. One’s cancer experience can be a vast resource to draw from when offering support to others. In knowing our own suffering, we often develop the desire to alleviate the suffering of others.

Compassion leads us not only to help others, but also to accept help from others. After my diagnosis, I found it difficult to request and accept help from others. Brown suggests that when we find it difficult to accept or ask for help without self-judgment, we are likely to subconsciously judge those who need our help. “Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.” In learning compassion, we open ourselves to truly reciprocal relationships and deeper human connections.

Connection: Support is important during a cancer journey, but connection is often intrinsic to one’s emotional healing. Nothing creates a sense of connection for cancer patients like the words “me too.” It was not until I was able to connect with someone who had “walked in my shoes” that I really felt understood. This connection helped me to start processing my own journey, but even within the cancer community, survivors can have a difficult time finding connection. Jamie, a stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, commented, “Being a single young woman with cancer was awful, and I had no support or guidance. Since I didn’t have one of the more common female cancers, I had nobody to relate to during that time. I felt extremely alone.”

A cancer diagnosis shows us who we can lean on without judgment or pity and those we cannot lean on at all. Vulnerability can act as a filter in this respect. It is typically transformational with all relationships, resulting in a strengthening of some relationships and dissolution of others. Trust is the foundation. Without trust, we cannot be honest about our feelings of vulnerability, and without honesty, we cannot feel genuinely connected to others.

A Journey of Discovery
When courage, compassion, and connection become a regular practice, they develop into incredible gifts in our life, even when our teacher is cancer. It is through our vulnerabilities that we truly discover these gifts. It takes breaking through our conditioned resistance to vulnerability, removing our protective armor, and allowing others to see who we truly are. While cancer is a physical disease, the scars extend deep into our emotional and spiritual lives. Though never a preferred or desired route, a cancer journey can transform our lives, opening our hearts to new levels of love, joy, and enlightenment.

Angela Long is the founder and creator of Breast Investigators, which serves as a comprehensive resource guide to help those affected by breast cancer readily gain access to quality information, care, assistance, and support. Visit www.BreastInvestigators.com.

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