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?