How DO You Heal Emotionally after the Trauma of Cancer? The 6 Principles

Over the years, I’ve received many messages from people who heard an interview I did with Dr. Ann Kelly (shared below) at Therapist Uncensored about how hard it is to heal after the trauma of having cancer.  And I explain the six keys to unlocking the healing process.

In September, 2023, new classes, therapy groups, and an online course will begin to help you learn and practice skills based on these principles.

Be sure you are on the JoyBoots community mailing list so you know when they open up!


Cancer sucks, no way around it. If you have it, had it or are supporting someone who does, this episode will be nourishment for you by bringing your mind and body into the healing and recovery process for cancer and trauma is so important.

Fighting cancer is often traumatic physically, emotionally and relationally. Podcast host Dr. Ann Kelley joins therapist and Yoga Instructor Kelly Inselmann (LCSW, C-IAYT,CGP) as she shares her personal journey through cancer recovery and describes her passion and process in supporting others to find hope and healing while in this compromised state.

They discuss how modifying the six principles of emotional recovery into the basic principles of yoga can have an immense impact on well-being and recovery.

Wounded Amazon

Hundreds of blood red spikes poke out of the white marble head and chest of a statue of a woman. This replica of a Roman statue, a “wounded amazon,” sits in a public art space on the street in NYC.

The placement of the spikes is no accident. They are arranged precisely where women who have had breast cancer surgery are cut and feel residual sensation, discomfort, and pain.

Even as I sit in the cool library and type these words, I can feel sensation a few inches to the right of my left shoulder blade, old discomfort from the left breast mastectomy I had 10 years ago.

The sculpture of the woman is enormous. The pain I see in her eyes is haunting. And so familiar, from looking into the faces of women I work with and from looking in the mirror at myself.

People are walking around the statue, many without a second look. Some glance her way, recognizing something unusual, but it’s hot outside and they are busy. Couples hold hands and laugh. The taxi driver has pulled his van over and parked right in front of her, waiting impatiently for the group he is collecting to come outside.

Her pain is enormous and she is in plain sight, yet the world swirls and moves forward without her. Her agony is her own.

This piece of art was created by artist Prune Nourry, age 33, who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer. It is called The Amazon and is modeled after the life sized marble statue of a wounded amazon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nourry referred to it as a “catharsis sculpture.” She decided to extend the timeline of the project recognizing that “healing is a long process.”


The definition of catharsis is “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.”

Identifying and then expressing the thoughts, emotions and sensations you feel are also the first steps in emotional recovery from the trauma of having cancer.

So why is it so hard to acknowledge the impact that cancer has had on you?

There’s pain, both physical and emotional that you are trying to avoid by pretending it doesn’t exist. And then there’s shame at having pain, at not bouncing back more quickly, at needing time to recover, instead of being an invincible warrior.

But even the Amazon warrior, as this piece demonstrates, can be wounded. And even she needs to be seen, understood, and given time to heal.

Kelly’s Podcast On Emotional Healing

Emotional suffering and mental health challenges are side effects of the cancer experience that often go unaddressed.

Your life is turned upside down by the shock of the diagnosis, and grueling treatments affect your nervous system, hormones, sleep, range of movement and body function. Relationships are tested and financial worries take center stage. Sometimes there is lingering pain. Always there is some fear of recurrence or spreading.

Your medical team is rightly focused on eliminating or holding the cancer at bay. And many cancer patients and survivors are fortunate to be supported and cared for by loving communities.

Yet survivors sometimes feel a pressure to minimize how deeply they are emotionally impacted, in an attempt to “stay positive” or “spiritual” and to avoid making others uncomfortable by sharing their physical and/or emotional pain.

I’m on a mission to address emotional recovery in the cancer experience so that people can move past the “new normal” with vitality. I was recently delighted to be interviewed by the Therapist Uncensored Podcast about my 6 Principles for Emotional Recovery after Cancer. Check it out:

Tears at the Table

In a world that wants you to act relentlessly positive, even in the face of your own or others’ suffering, how can you make space for the authentic experience of your own feelings, sensations, and thoughts?

Can you make room for all of it? Can you give yourself permission to have the experience you are having RIGHT NOW – the thoughts, feelings and sensations that are part of your human experience, without trying to change anything or push it away?

I’m writing this post at the end of my birthday weekend – in which I have felt so blessed and loved and unbelievably lucky. I’m delighted to be STILL HERE, enjoying the moment with my daughter and husband and friends and family and all of you.

But I have to tell you, having a birthday, especially a big one, can be a mixed bag!

My daughter, husband and I traveled for one night to San Antonio to celebrate. There were moments of genuine pleasure on our short trip, but I also felt overwhelmed several times by feelings of irritability, nostalgia, and even grief. I was surprised to be missing my grandparents, who lived in San Antonio and whom I used to visit regularly. I felt their absence sharply, like I haven’t in many years.

Then there was annoyance at mixed up dinner and brunch plans, poignancy in realizing I’ve been with my husband for exactly half my life (we met when I was 25 and now I’m 50), love and joy with my daughter’s delight in the history and beauty of the old hotel where we were staying, irritation at her loud complaining about the food not being exactly what she expected.

I felt gratitude for making it to 50 and shame at feeling having tears over minor annoyances, upsetting my sweet family who were trying really hard to be on their best behavior and make the time nice for me.

The more I tried to push away the sadness and irritability to just be grateful, the more it showed in the form of impatience or tears.

Can you relate?

That’s when I remembered what I tell people in class: Make room for this. Make room for the full experience, the sadness and irritability, the love and the appreciation, the anger and the grief.

Why is it important to make room for the feelings instead of shutting them down or pretending nothing’s wrong? Because shutting feelings down doesn’t make them go away. You end up acting them out even more OR you continue to experience the effects of the suppressed anger and sadness – your immune system and nervous system work overtime, because instead of allowing the feelings to come up for a few uncomfortable (even embarrassing moments) and then moving on out, they take up residence inside you.

I tried to give myself space for the feelings, even though to be honest it didn’t make me look very graceful. Luckily my family can be very forgiving, especially when I assure them it’s not their fault I’m crying at the table on my birthday!

And then the feelings moved through..














During a hurricane, the warning signs are there: the weather turns dark, the winds pick up, rains become frightening and torrential. You buckle down to survive.

The storm feels endless. Power goes out.

At the mercy of nature, you do what you can to be cautious, and you have the water, flashlight, candles, and snacks you need to get through. You are grateful for your friends and family and neighbors. Sometimes strangers show up to help at a crucial moment.

Maybe you get through relatively unscathed, except for the fear and worry about others.

But sometimes your house is barely standing or unrecognizable. It was far worse than expected.

People bring food, text messages of concern, drive you places, help you tear off the rotten wood and carry your belongings to the street for a while. There’s FEMA – not a great option, but better than nothing.

As time goes on, to others your struggle seems less urgent, and you hear from people less. They assume you are getting along better and of course they have their own lives.

The sky outside is blue and you can hear the birds chirp. Restaurants and stores are back open. The world is going on around you, even though you are still not finished rebuilding your house or your life. You are now on your own.


This hurricane comparison came from Robyn who sent me a message after reading a piece I wrote on how your emotions must be allowed to emerge in order to heal.

She likened cancer recovery to the aftermath of a natural disaster:  “It’s like a hurricane hit your life and even though you should just be grateful you survived it, dealing with the aftermath of it all takes so much longer than the actual hurricane itself…”

It’s true. Cancer, like other chronic and critical illness, hits your body and your personal life like a hurricane. And like hurricane survivors, it’s important to know it is not unusual to struggle greatly as you pick up the pieces of your life. Others are also experiencing the shock, fear, dread, anger, loss, gratitude, and joyful moments as you.

Though you know it takes time to heal, there’s pressure to move on quickly and be cheerful, even as you are confronted with painful or upsetting side effects: joint or bone pain, pain from surgery, chemobrain, lack of mobility, job loss, relationship problems, fatigue, just to name a few.

Still, it takes time to come to terms with the reality of what you have gone through. You have to get to know your body again, rebuild it, and adapt to changes in how you see the world, your relationships, and priorities.

Sometimes the pressure comes from within. You want so badly for it to be over. You expect yourself to fit right back in to your old life and schedule and priorities when everything about you has shifted and needs space and time and support to heal and re-integrate.


“I don’t want to have had cancer…” I sometimes hear from clients. The steps to recovery feel so overwhelming.

And yet, given no other option, you do move forward.

What helps manage feelings?

  • Reaching out instead of isolating.  Say what you feel. Let yourself cry and express anger.
  • Finding ways to move your body that feel safe and nurturing, even pleasurable to you: walking, swimming, yoga, dancing-all at your own pace. Check out Team Survivor activities in your community.
  • Attending support groups and getting therapy.
  • Asking your medical questions until you feel you understand.
  • Resting without guilt.
  • Writing about your pain and your feelings and your experience as though they were important. Because they are.
  • Long deep breathing.
  • Spending time with friends and family who are supportive. If they are draining to you, limit your time with them.
  • Being in nature.


Reality is, things may never be exactly the same.  Be honest with yourself about what you are feeling and find community who allow you to show up just as you are.


Photos are from my sister’s neighborhood in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.