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When cancer is your “new normal”

There are more than 122,000 British Columbians living in the province who have been diagnosed with cancer in the past decade – about 2.7 per cent of the population.
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This number has grown steadily with the growth and aging of the population, while simultaneously cancer survival rates have increased for most common cancers. 

Even when treatments are finished, the struggle is still not over for many people living with cancer. Some continue to face cognitive issues like depression or sleep deprivation. Others may have body image anxiety or challenges returning to work. Many others want to re-examine and reshape their whole lives. 

sunaina w dog image.pngThat was certainly the case for Vancouver’s Sunaina Sharma.
Sharma followed in the footsteps of her high achieving family, getting a PhD in chemistry from Simon Fraser University, a post-doctorate from Stanford University, a law degree from the University of British Columbia and a Masters in Law from the University of California at Berkley, where she was recruited by the federal government to be a Senior Manager with Health Canada in Ottawa. Most of these achievements occurred while her husband and son remained in Vancouver, with Sharma constantly in pursuit of the next goal: “I was just a workaholic and nothing else.”

In March 2004, Sharma discovered she had stage four medullary type breast cancer. She was treated in Ottawa. “I was in complete denial mode,” she says. “I headed back to work and did everything I’d done before. It was that fighting spirit that got me through this ordeal.” 

Six years later, still working for Health Canada, Sharma was managing a Secretariat of the Community of Federal Regulators with 17 departments and over 60,000 employees. She was losing weight and her hair was falling out, but it was only when she began experiencing blackouts while driving that she started to pay attention. Her family doctor told her, “Your head is in the sand. When will you wake up?”

She returned to Vancouver in 2010 suffering from severe depression and sought help from the BC Cancer Agency for possible further treatment and counselling. 

Cancer as a “new normal”

Sarah Sample is a professional practice leader in Patient and Family Counselling at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, coordinating counselling for patients and providing supervision to counsellors. She’s also been a counsellor for cancer patients and their families herself at the Agency for the past 25 years.

“Just because treatment has ended for someone that has survived an experience with cancer, doesn’t mean that cancer is over for them. They may have to deal with the disease for the rest of their lives. Not just physically, but psychologically, socially and emotionally,” Sarah says. 

Referencing her numerous counselling sessions with people living with cancer and their families, Sample says that there is one thing that comes up again and again: “Everyone wants them to get back to being better again, back to being their old selves. But for those that are living with cancer, what they say they need most is to be seen and heard;  to be encouraged and supported to move forward in their own way, in their own time.”
In her experience working with people that are living with cancer, she says that she has seen people respond to cancer in a variety of ways. Many go through a complete reassessment of their life and life choices, as well as their relationships. For some people, cancer throws their life into chaos or gives them a feeling that they are “living in limbo”. For others, like Sunaina Sharma, they find meaning in their cancer, and adjust to what both Sample and Sharma refer to as a “new normal”. 

Silver linings 

“I didn’t know who I really was anymore,” says Sharma, who had defined herself and her status in society prior to cancer by her jobs and degrees. In July 2012, in her quest to bring normalcy to her life, Sharma enrolled in Erickson College’s The Art and Science of Coaching – a program that taught her “how to visualize something and manifest it in reality.”

As she sees it now, it was her “action driven” lifestyle that led to her diagnosis of cancer. She had been living an “egotistical” life with no physical activity, poor eating habits, away from her family, and ultimately, she lost her health. “The floodgates opened,” she says. “I’m sure I had cancer because I didn’t know how to stop and breathe.”

These days, through a variety of volunteer positions, Sharma focuses on empowering those who have cancer, survivors and their caregivers to reach their ideal self through mediation, visualization and self-awareness. She still contends with the after-effects of her cancer treatment, which include fibrosis in her lungs and recurrent depressive episodes, but she also enjoys her dogs, tends an organic garden and takes Zumba. 

“I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve grown more in the last few years than I did in the 50 years previous to that,” says Sharma. “I’m growing into a different person. Each day brings new changes, new awareness and new awakenings.” 

After cancer, she acknowledges, “nothing remains the same.” She compares the disease to the pit in a cherry: While the pit might appear to get in the way of the delicious fruit, if you plant it, it may produce more cherries. 

“I’m peaceful,” says Sharma, who believes she needed cancer’s unwelcome wake-up call. “I’m an educator, a trainer, a lawyer, an executive and a coach – but more importantly, I’m becoming a great human being.” 

The BC Cancer Agency website has a number of publicly available resources on Coping with Cancer

breast cancer; mental health; Patient story
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