What brings you joy? Finding happiness after a cancer diagnosis

28 Sep 2020

Happiness is a funny concept. For many people, it’s something they seek out, work towards or search for throughout their lives. However, according to Clinical Psychologist Dr Toni Lindsay, it’s not something that you can ‘find’ and hold on to, especially after a cancer diagnosis.

“We often have this expectation that we should be happy all the time,” she says, “and for most people that just isn't the case. So, we have periods when we're feeling happy, but by our nature, we can't be happy all the time.”

A mix of emotions
Dr Lindsay says it’s important to remember that happiness actually is one of a raft of many emotions that happen to us.

“Often people get quite caught up in this idea of, well, if I'm not happy, then I'm not okay. However, it can be useful to just acknowledge and notice what you are feeling right now; whether that’s happiness, sadness, contentment, anger, whatever… and realising that all these feelings come and go all the time,” she explains

Instead of feeling unhappy about not being happy, Dr Lindsay recommends doing things in your life which help you feel content and engaged; things that let you live a life that is consistent with what's important to you. A by-product of that, she says, can be a sense of happiness.

Diagnosis and happiness
It’s this concept she speaks to cancer patients about in her role at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse as a senior clinical psychologist.

“I work with people in the context of their cancer, and there's lots of change going on for them,” she explains. “But the thing that is often most helpful is saying to them, ‘Okay, what's important to you right now and how do you live a life that is consistent with those values?’.”

For some people, she says, that might be their work, so she would look at how they are going to maintain some of those connections or ongoing sense of purpose if they can’t work due to treatments. Similarly, with family, friends, hobbies or community, finding a way to continue incorporating those important actions can result in patients feeling relatively settled and content.

“It’s important for cancer patients to understand how the disease intersects into their world,” she explains. “A cancer diagnosis can often mean that there are lots of challenges that people aren't expecting, so I usually ask them what their diagnosis means for them right now? And what is going to help them get through these challenges?”

Working with anxiety
With a diagnosis also comes anxiety and worry, and that is completely normal, says Dr Lindsay.

“We expect that when people are diagnosed, they're anxious and they'll probably be anxious for a little while and that's actually okay,” she confirms. “We often have this idea that anxiety is bad, whereas sometimes it's really functional. And so, we often start to work out what it means for this anxiety to be present in their world.”

In terms of treating anxiety and encouraging contentment, Dr Lindsay says it’s wholly dependent on each patient’s experiences and reactions, but a large part of the process is accepting the situation for what it is.

“It’s important for a patient’s sense of wellbeing to accept that the world might not look the same from now on. During treatment people spend a lot of time thinking about when things ‘get back to normal’, but of course normal is wherever you are right now,” she says. “And finishing treatment is often really tricky to navigate because they have to work out what normal looks like going forward.”

Starting a new life
Similarly, having experienced cancer doesn't mean that the anxiety or the worry is necessarily going to disappear and feelings of happiness will suddenly come rushing back, says Dr Lindsay.

Instead, she says, the best way to find contentment and happiness is for patients to build their lives around the core values that are important to them. And looking at what can they let go of in order to create a life they will feel settled in.

“The next step after cancer is transitioning to reengage with the world… I think many patients spend a lot of time worrying about what happens if the cancer comes back,” Dr Lindsay says, “but they spend much less time thinking about what happens if it doesn't?”