The Thaw


Photo by Amy Hanley on Unsplash
Photo by Amy Hanley on Unsplash

The days seemed endless, and Michele marked them off in her calendar like a prisoner records days of a long sentence on the wall. Six months of weekly chemo followed by 6 months of infusions every few weeks. In between, there was surgery and radiation. She resisted anything slowing down her progress. She focused on the day she was declared free of the cancer and free to get her life back.

At the end of active treatment, little things that used to annoy her, barely registered. She had more perspective about what is important: family, health, showing compassion for herself and others.

Michele survived emotionally with positive affirmations and faith, and by sheer grit: grinning and bearing it. To assuage the worry and fear of others, she often appeared cheerful, squelching pain, disappointment, grief and anger.

In the months following the end of treatment, she begins to feel easily irritated, fatigued and emotional. She has trouble containing her feelings, and they erupt in a flash of anger or tears at inopportune moments. She’s hard on herself for lacking gratitude. She worries her lack of positivity will bring the cancer back.

Michele is not alone! In my Yoga and Talk® Groups and Classes for Cancer Survivors, I see this phase of recovery often and I call it “the thaw.”

The thaw can occur anytime during or after treatment and is hard to predict.

The shock and emotional numbness that offered (unconscious) protection from the trauma begins to wear off, often unevenly. Sometimes, you feel positive and grateful, other times the future seems plagued with danger and endless fear of recurrence. Effort can feel meaningless, your feelings raw or simmering below the surface.

You know how when your foot falls asleep and then you try to walk and you have to take your time and it’s awkward and uncomfortable? The emotional thaw is similar in that you have to take your time and people may need to wait.

While it can be deeply unsettling, in my experience, it’s also a signal that you are ready for emotional healing.

As your heart thaws and you come to terms with the reality of what happened to you, give yourself as much permission as possible to rest and allow the sensations and feelings to emerge, be understood and healed.

Here are a few ways to be kind to yourself during the thaw:

  1. Know that tears are the body and mind’s way of cleansing. It’s a way of integrating your experience, so the thought and feeling are not separated inside you.  If you need to cry, cry until the tears are gone for the moment. Don’t try to stop the tears. Stay with the feeling.  It won’t last forever. Michele recently told me that she lets herself cry in the house, car, and shower.  When the tears come, she welcomes them and tries to squeeze every last one out.  Sometimes people cry in yoga class or in my groups and because they are in public, they try to turn it off and feel embarrassed. At least in my classes, I say bring it on – it’s a sign that you are cleansing and integrating.
  2. Find ways to discharge grief and anger physically, through exercise or art.
  3. Vent to a trusted friend or support group. Be willing to name what you are actually feeling and be heard. If someone can’t be there for you, don’t blame yourself. But look for others who can be present even when you are sad or angry.
  4. Seek out a therapist to help you piece together the cancer experience in the context of your life. Is there unresolved prior trauma that has been triggered and now needs healing as well? Do you need help sorting through complex relationships?
  5. If you can’t stop crying or raging, and I mean 24/7, not just allowing the tears to flow, or if you are not sleeping at all, PLEASE see a therapist or doctor.  There is much support to be gained.
  6. Look for community where you can show up exactly as you are in this moment, transformed. Both the same and different from how you were before cancer.
  7. Get bodywork – massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, yoga. Your experience has been stored in your body and will benefit from gentle care.

It’s messy to thaw out and more than a little painful.  But to gain vitality and wellness, the thaw is essential. Grief and anger must be felt, not stuffed inside or disowned, only to leak out or keep you numb.  And you must be supported in this process-don’t isolate.

Deeper emotional healing, truer relationships, and re-connecting with the pulse of your life is on the other side.

Over the next 6 months, I’m going to focus on the Role of Emotions in Healing. I hope you will join the conversation by leaving me a comment on the website about your experience with the thaw and questions about feelings and cancer and how they relate.


8 thoughts on “The Thaw”

  1. Hello Kelly,

    This blog post is very timely for me. The two year anniversary of my last chemo treatment just passed two days ago and I realized I’ve been feeling really angry and needing to cry unexpectedly. Doesn’t help that this is a super stressful time at work as well. I feel like everyone just assumes I’m fine now. I began seeing a wonderful therapist after my second round of chemo in 2015, am still seeing her and am grateful to have her in my corner. I’ve had an image in my mind not so much of thawing but of things rising from underneath and have been thinking I must be in a place now where I can experience the emotions I could not while undergoing treatment. I like the image of thawing as well. Looking forward to your next posts. Thank you.

    • Hi Teresa-Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to know how this resonates with your experience. I love what you said about things rising from underneath – I agree! I’ve been thinking of it as cancer causes everything to rise to the surface-relationships, internal struggles, etc – it all comes up during this time of vulnerability…

  2. Absolutely beautiful, necessary and true! Thank you for putting words to such an implicit experience that is such an important part of cancer journey. Even the virtual connection helps me feel joy and comfort with tinges of sadness and grief. Thank you!

  3. I think you just hit the nail on the head for how I’ve been feeling these last months! Two years have passed since my last follow up breast reconstruction surgery. For about a year and a half I was either in treatment or having surgery or healing from surgery. Finally the doctor visits slowed and life has been “normal” since. Now I don’t quite feel numb, but I lack a zest for life I long to have. Your post makes me think I have some not-yet-dealt-with feelings as I, too, approach my canserversay. Thanks for the clarity.

  4. Yes! That’s why I was upset that they took the line “but I thought it would feel better” out of the second edit of the video when talking about remission. 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…
    Like Julie said about the zest for life, I feel like there’s a giant dimmer on my sparkle- which is progress I guess, because I used to feel like the light completely went out. Just passed my 4th cancerversary though, and besides that over-hanging fear cloud that still lurks around, I’m starting to feel somewhat normal again- the tears that come are far less often, and certainly less intense.
    Thanks for the post, Kelly 🙂

    • I’m glad to know about the 4 year cancerversary. I love the milestones. The hurricane’s aftermath-such a great analogy. Yes-I so agree about the video-that made is stronger and even more authentic. It’s still worthwhile though. People often quote back to me some of what you say in it…So good to hear from you and I hope the semester is going well. Sat nam XO


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