Dealing With the Emotional Aftermath of a Cancer Diagnosis

Grace Blanchard was just three weeks away from graduating from college when she began feeling like something was off.

“It started with my handwriting,” Blanchard said. “I had always felt like I had good handwriting, so it was strange that it all of a sudden became messy, slanted and unreadable.”

Then there was the slurred speech and dizziness.

“At first I thought I had vertigo,” she said, “so I decided to see a neurologist to get an MRI.”

Once the results of the MRI scan were in, Blanchard received a call.

“They asked me to come into the clinic as quickly as possible, and that I should bring support,” she said. “They knew that after hearing, ‘you have a brain tumor the size of a golf ball on your cerebellum,’ I wouldn’t be able to listen to anything else.”

The following day, Blanchard flew from California, where she had been going to school, to Seattle, her hometown, for surgery to remove the tumor.

“I decided Seattle would be the best option, not only because I wanted to be with my family,” she said, “but also because of the fact that Seattle has the best hospitals for cancer treatment.”

Within 24 hours of flying into Seattle, Blanchard went to Seattle Children’s to get her tumor surgically removed.

Life interrupted

After the tumor was successfully removed, Blanchard felt a sense of relief.

“I thought because the tumor was gone, I could go back to school and go back to living my life,” she said.

However, that wasn’t the case.

“They sat me down and said it was a cancerous tumor,” Blanchard said. “To make sure it didn’t spread to my spinal fluid, they said I needed to undergo radiation and chemotherapy.”

Before completely immersing herself into cancer treatment, Blanchard had the chance to close the door on one chapter of her life.

“I went back to California to walk during graduation and get my diploma,” she said. “It was bittersweet because I knew after graduation, my friends would be moving out and getting married, while I would be moving back in with my parents and going through rigorous cancer treatment.”

She was overcome with thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.

“I questioned ‘why me and what did I do for this to happen to me,’” Blanchard said. “My wonderful team at Seattle Children’s was there for me and helped me come to a place of acceptance by reassuring me there was nothing I did to cause this and that that they were going to do all they could to save my life.”

While she found acceptance, she was still struggling with her emotions.

“When I was first diagnosed, I wrestled with the existential fear of dying,” Blanchard said. “Then, as time went on and I started treatment, I went into emotional shut down mode which caused me to harbor negative emotions that would later catch up with me.”

Survival mode

While Blanchard was in treatment, she focused on nothing but her survival.

“I kept my head down for the most part,” she said. “Going through radiation was an especially hard and scary experience. However, I felt lucky that my family was there for me, loving me every step of the way.”

Her care team also continued to rally around her.

“I had to be reminded constantly that I was strong and a fighter,” Blanchard said. “Being told by people who I looked up to and admired that I had characteristics that I didn’t think I had allowed me to say, ‘yes, I can get through this.’”

Blanchard began seeing Dr. Joanna Patten, a psychologist and clinical lead of cancer care psychosocial services in Seattle Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

“When I first met Grace, she was still adjusting to the fact that this was going to be a big and significant disruption in her life trajectory,” Patten said, “yet she always remained resilient and optimistic.”

Patten worked with Blanchard throughout her cancer treatment. Their talks gave Blanchard an outlet to discuss what direction to take her life given the interference cancer had on significant milestones of her adulthood.

“We discussed relationships, companionship, and body image in relation to how treatment impacted her physically and emotionally,” Patten said. “It helped her gain confidence and feel a sense of control over her life.”

On May 27, 2017, after six weeks of radiation and one year of chemotherapy, Blanchard was done with treatment.

“I was happy and completely ready to move on with my life,” she said.

As time passed, Blanchard’s physical health remained stable. However, her mental health began to suffer as she still had underlying emotional issues.

“I’ve lived with anxiety most of my life,” she said. “Yet when spring of 2018 came along, I began feeling these knots in my stomach that became unbearable to manage.”

Blanchard went to a psychiatrist where she was prescribed medication for her anxiety. During her visit, she asked the doctor why her anxiety was increasing and why now.

“He pointed out to me that it was my one year anniversary of ending cancer treatment, which is something I didn’t even realize,” she said. “He said that the emotions I didn’t deal with before were bubbling up to the surface.”

This explanation gave her peace of mind, and she looked forward to embarking on her next path in life.

Learning to cope

That summer, Blanchard went to San Diego to spend time with her sister.

“While I was having a good time, I still felt the anxiety creeping in,” she said. “To quell my anxiety, I started drinking and partying a lot.”

Thinking she was like most 20 something-year-olds, behavior like this didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

In the fall, Blanchard started graduate school and while she enjoyed it, her anxiety level increased.

Blanchard returned to Patten to receive help.

“We talked about post traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, and how it triggered me to drink heavily,” Blanchard said.

With Patten’s guidance, she learned various coping skills that would help her navigate the feelings that she had initially shrugged off.

“We worked on cognitive reframing strategies, distress tolerance and relaxation skills,” Patten said. “We also talked about use of mindfulness strategies.”

Blanchard also joined the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Group where adolescents and young adults, ages 17 to 22, who have received treatment for cancer or a brain tumor, learn and practice skills that will help with issues related to cancer in young adulthood.

“In the group, they learn coping skills and strategies that can be helpful in navigating school and work settings,” Patten said. “It also gives them the opportunity to connect with peers around issues with navigating friendships and family relationships during and after treatment.”

Blanchard blossomed in this group setting, as her grad school education, which centers on marriage and family therapy, helped in facilitating constructive conversations.

“She’s so naturally gifted in these sorts of settings in offering her own experience and inviting others to share their unique experiences,” Patten said.  “Seeing her being really supportive and validating to others was wonderful to see.”

Finding hope in the darkness

Although her work with Patten and the group were benefiting Blanchard, she still struggled with alcohol use. She decided to take a break from grad school so she could focus on her sobriety and get back on her feet.

Blanchard attends substance use support groups regularly and sees substance use specialists at Seattle Children’s.

“I’ve been through dark times, and I’ve learned that dealing with significant emotional issues is a process that takes time,” Blanchard said. “I’ve also learned how to dissect and deal with the feelings that I didn’t even know I had, and I’ve found helpful coping tools like exercise, journaling, yoga, mindfulness and healthy eating.”

With her sobriety now under control, Blanchard is looking forward to restarting grad school next spring.

“A message I want to share with others who may be going through a similar experience is to not be ashamed of what you’re struggling with,” Blanchard said. “I’ve been in dark places and always found hope – just know that there are always people that love and care about you and there’s a higher power rooting for you.”