5 Lessons About Vulnerability and Cancer

Vulnerability is scary. It exposes emotions and opens up our souls to possible hurt and rejection. Hurt and rejection sting.

What then, is the point of being vulnerable?

It can lead to comfort and acceptance. Other people have felt what I feel. Others have thought maybe it was just them until I shared. Or vice versa. It involves trust, empathy, and meaningful connections to others.

A lot of vulnerability comes with a cancer diagnosis. There are many exposed emotions such as worry, fear, sadness, anger, stress, anxiety, and guilt. Layer these with physical symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, constipation, headache, fatigue, bone and muscle pain, and other side effects. Combine these altogether and you get the instability and loss of control that make vulnerability what it is.

No one wants to wake up in the morning and strive to make themselves as vulnerable as possible in every situation throughout the day. Most of our day to day activities fall within our comfort zones. People tend to thrive and feel happy when they feel safe and secure. This holds true to learning, performance in the workplace, and personal relationships.

Yet it’s in those personal relationships where we need to let others in. Not everyone, but those few who offer that trust, empathy, and connection that lovingly support the vulnerable. It’s a two-way street and we can let those in who are vulnerable with us.

What does Brené Brown have to say about vulnerability?

“We can exercise the vulnerability muscle that allows us to soften and stay open rather than attack and defend. This means getting comfortable with vulnerability.”

Brené Brown

“The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it is our most accurate measure of courage.” 

Brené Brown

How can this be applied to my life? I have five main take-aways:

Lean in.

One of my friends says to lean in. She and others are there to support me. They will sit with me in my pain as I will with theirs. I have had more than enough time to get vulnerable with cancer, although I can’t say I will ever be comfortable with it. I can discuss it somewhat more openly and know what my feelings mean.

Leaning in requires openness and a degree of courage. The outcome of doing so is usually unknown. Life has no guarantees. Unfortunately, some may not receive the authenticity and vulnerability we offer when we lean in. We try again, perhaps a little more carefully, but still courageously.

Illness makes us vulnerable.

Illness unleashes the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure that are at the heart of vulnerability. There have been so many ups and downs with metastatic breast cancer. Countless face offs with fear. Innumerable times of sadness, loneliness, and disappointment.

I have turned from a confident woman into someone much more insecure. There is hesitancy in attending social events because of anxiety about looking like a sick person. Sometimes I don’t even want to walk out to my mailbox and be seen. Walls are so much easier to leave up in contrast to feeling exposed.

When I don’t feel well, my defenses are down. Hurt, self-protection, and privacy are why I have defenses. Defenses like lying to questions about how I’m doing. Defenses like withdrawing from others so I don’t have to talk about cancer and me. Defenses like curling up in my safe haven at home.

What I call the Fatigue Factor impacts my vulnerability. Some days when fatigue prevents me from even smiling because I have no energy. Fatigue, any side effect from treatment, makes me vulnerable, but I don’t think in a good way. I can’t do much to reject unwanted gestures, nor could I accept wanted ones.

I need to trust more.

Cancer has caused distrust of my body, myself, others, and medicine.

I am not alone.

Yet, my body is holding on. Trusting myself is a work in process. There are people in my life whom I can trust. I can think through information and my emotions in an analytical way. I gain insight when I write about my feelings, often ending up in a different place than I thought I’d be. Talking through things is incredibly helpful. I was feeling particularly low one day and messaged a friend. We chatted. When I spoke the words I was feeling aloud, I realized I was over reacting. What I worried about was in fact a very small deal. Another day, I stopped at a friend’s house for an outdoor visit and had a breakthrough on why I didn’t feel more anger about no longer teaching. Gratitude is my over-powering feeling about no longer teaching, a little sadness, but not really anger. It’s certainly in my best interest to trust medicine that has stood up to scientific tests and rigor.

I joined a support group when initially diagnosed. It was not a group for stage IV breast cancer. The director at Gilda’s Club told me they were a group of little old ladies that ran around everywhere together. I was 41 years young. Age doesn’t define friendship, but I didn’t think I’d fit. The group met during the day and I was still teaching. I joined a general breast cancer support group and didn’t share I was metastatic. I didn’t feel I clicked with this group either. Women monopolized the time with issues that didn’t seem relevant. Eventually, I stopped going.

I am part of a healing circle now that meets on Zoom. Our small group of six all have metastatic breast cancer. Here are women who have become friends. We have a bond and connection that is tight because we have been vulnerable with one another. What we share with one another has been one my biggest teachers that I am not alone.

I can be vulnerable and still hold boundaries.

Being vulnerable does not mean all boundaries are tossed out the window. Everything isn’t to be shared with everyone. Everything isn’t even to be share with a select few. I have realized that opening myself up more has allowed myself to be stepped upon with an understanding that it is okay because of what the other person needs. Old wounds.

No is a great word to hold boundaries. I don’t need to explain.

Another boundary that rests with me is the decision on what gets shared and with whom.

I can put limits on how vulnerable I make myself. If something is too painful for me to speak aloud, that is okay.

Boundaries make being open with uncertainty safer.

There is space in vulnerability for many feelings.

Let’s look back at the definition of vulnerability: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Space can be held for whatever the softness opens us up to experience. We can feel grief, growth, hope, and even happiness. I feel them all.

I am willing to show up and be seen.

Who’s with me?

Three Lenses to Braving the Wilderness

Living with cancer has given me the opportunity to spend more time reading for enjoyment. It is a welcomed escape. I recently read one of Brené Brown’s books, Braving the Wilderness. In today’s post, I explore this book’s themes from three different lenses.

Lens One: Braving the Wilderness Brené Style

This lens is a basic introduction to the book’s main message. Brené Brown explains that being brave involves being true to yourself. Being brave means bringing life to your story. You are the only one who can do it.

She says you aren’t going to please everyone. Inevitably, it means you can’t be brave and never disappoint anyone. So true.

If you seek the constant approval of others and people pleasing is more important than your own inner happiness, you are not being brave.

There will be criticism with braveness. There will be LOTS of criticism.

There will be great moments of uncertainty because you are standing alone.

There will be vulnerability as you discover all your truths and how you are discovering exactly how you belong.

These sound terrifying. Going through life not knowing yourself is more terrifying. Braving the wilderness means you stand firm when you face the wind and disapproval of others. When you know yourself, you have the courage to stand firm in your beliefs because you know who you are.

To truly belong, you only need to belong to yourself.

That’s the biggest take away for me in the whole book. In a world where belongingness is sought after in almost every interaction and relationship, we all lose sight that the most valuable relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. The interactions that matter most are the ones directed at how we treat ourselves.

She writes that “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”

Belonging is intertwined with I AM.

Lens Two: Braving the Wilderness with Cancer

My opinion and personal interpretation take over with this lens.

Having cancer is a wilderness of its own. Truly belonging to yourself and blending that wilderness with a cancer wilderness is challenging. To own both wildernesses is overwhelming.

I believe if Brené Brown were to speak directly to me, she would say to lean in fully to the loneliness and discomfort of cancer. She would emphasize the need to become vulnerable with it. The personal connection with it would change how I feel about it. At least I think that’s what she’d say.

I also think I’ve had plenty of loneliness, discomfort, and enough of a personal connection with cancer already.

Brené Brown writes a lot about boundaries. The firmer the boundaries, the more respected they will be. It is not okay to be taken advantage of and trampled upon physically or emotionally. You can’t belong to yourself if you are crushed.

Cancer can crush a person as much as someone else can. Being bald makes you look and feel less feminine. Surgeries do the same and you’re left feeling “less than.” Others often confirm it. If you are flat, then you somehow have lost your womanhood. Perceptions around going flat are slowly changing. Treatments take all the oomph out you so there isn’t much energy left for you to object to cancer defining you. Medical labels, side effects, perceptions, and an evolving normal keep shifting. It’s easy for cancer to define someone. It’s much harder to claim belongingness.

Suddenly, you are not you anymore, but the person with cancer. Everyone has a story to share with you because that’s how they attempt to connect with you and now identify with you. It’s important to set boundaries for how you want to be treated.

Firm boundaries support trust. When others respect boundaries, it is safer to trust them. Trust has caused me an ocean of hurt. A lot has become clearer to me in the last few years.

To me, living with cancer and learning to trust more means:

  • I share what I want about my health and expect my privacy to be respected.
  • I do not have to explain or justify my feelings, nor do I need to provide a reason so others understand.
  • I can’t trust a person with the big stuff if someone has betrayed that trust with smaller stuff.
  • I need to feel physically and emotionally safe in order to feel connected to someone.

Strong boundaries enable a person to have more empathy for others. Self-care comes first. Then you know what you can do and not do for others. I still identify as a helper. Taking care of myself first lets me know what time and energy I have available for others.

Living well demands I brave it – it being life – and I’m braving it fiercely these days. The older I get, the more at home I feel in my own skin. I’ve known for some time that my happiness depends on my braving life. I am comfortable with most of the decisions I make. Being brave is both frightening and peaceful at the same time. The uncertainty and vulnerability show up as frightening, but then the acceptance of those parts of my life oddly brings an element of peace.

Lens Three: Braving Well Together

This sounds like an oxymoron if braving the wilderness involves only needing to belong to ourselves and having the courage to stand alone yet firmly in our beliefs and values. The way I see it, there is still room for the support of others who are also being brave. Picture a wilderness scene. I can be standing in my wilderness next to a beautiful mountain lake holding a sign that proclaims my beliefs. Another person can be standing a few feet away near a magnificent tree with a sign that reads entirely different. Part of my wilderness may be accepting and trusting others. This holds challenges for me, but I need to be vulnerable enough to slowly test those waters. The other person may be working on keeping a few more personal thoughts and the confidences of others private. We can give each other the acknowledging head nod to show our support while still recognizing the work is an individual inner process.

The other way I believe we can be brave together is that it’s when we feel alone and are brave that someone else comes along and gives voice that they feel exactly the same way. We may think we are alone, but we are not. It’s very possible that someone was feeling the same way and was beyond grateful to cross paths with someone else giving voice and standing his/her ground in a way they needed. When we are brave on our own, social connections can be found. It’s part of finding your tribe.

Vulnerability has always been tough for me. Honestly, I haven’t always liked Brené Brown’s work. I stopped reading her first book years earlier because I didn’t like what she had to say and I found her too repetitive. Looking back, I wasn’t ready to do some of the work I needed to do.

I still have work to do. LOTS. There is so much I don’t have figured out. I’ve figured out this much: I’ve become more comfortable braving the wilderness.

Consider responding:

  • Have you read any of Brené Brown’s books? What stands out to you?