THE BLOG

What a Cognitive Psychologist Learned About Fear and Resilience When She was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

23/03/2016 16:20 GMT | Updated 24/03/2017 09:12 GMT

It was the spring of 2012, and I remember well the exhilarating feeling of being promoted to the title of full professor within only six years of my first appointment as lecturer at Birkbeck University of London. Previously, my research was focussed on understanding what makes us vulnerable to emotional disorders like anxiety and depression and how we can overcome vulnerability and practice resilience. Cancer, however, did not care that I had been awarded a prestigious fellowship to continue my work in the prime of my life, when I was diagnosed with multifocal invasive breast cancer on January 2nd, 2013. I was in my 30s, and my daughter, Ella, was just under three years of age.

To say that my whole world turned around is an understatement because every day since that day my world has been changing in an emotional and physical roller coaster that I continue to challenge. I am a mother and an academic. And I have had to face my mortality so early having a dependent child who means everything to me. While I have so far survived the storm of diagnosis and treatment, the storm, however, never left. The sound of the rain reminds me that lightening can strike again. Will I survive it next time? Or will I be washed away? I am reminded of the anticipation, the expectation: the fear of recurrence. The fear that can distract, interfere and apprehend. "But, you have become an integral part of my life, so I shall take you forward with me", I say.

I feel lucky that I am able to continue my work, but cancer is never far away. I am pleasantly distracted by a paper that is accepted for publication; I marvel that I have been invited to give a distinguished lecture at an International Conference for Stress and Anxiety Research. I start to prepare my talk. I hear the sound of the lightening in the far distance, I stop. I turn to my daughter and start playing hide and seek (her favourite game), and the voice is somehow louder. "I hear you", I say to my fears. "I feel you. Perhaps you can guide me". So, I continue, still fearful.

Three years down the line, I still continue to be haunted by my cancer. Like the background music to a movie it's always there, singing the trauma that I have endured. Approximately, two-thirds of women with a breast cancer diagnosis suffer PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and this can make them prone to anxiety and depression later. I love exercising, but frequently go through chronic fatigue and am still suffering the well-known 'cognitive decline' or 'chemo-brain'. Yet I am expected to function to my full capacity, what the storm left of me. Of course I will never give up, I am grateful for a second chance. And this goes for all the 57,000 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, every year. If they are given a second chance.

What is resilience I ask myself? Common perception sees resilience as mental toughness, fighting the fears. It's about positivity. Yet, this ideology seems far-fetched, the fear is very real. Rather, resilience, I have learned, is about flexibility, adapting and adjusting: accepting our fears, and the strength to embrace and harness them. Yes, we are scarred but the scars do not define us. The scars signal our gratitude and grit, and the fears that mark what matters to us. Resilience helps us listen to our fears. So, how can we learn to be resilient, I ask myself.

I set up the educational Research Centre for Building Psychological Resilience in Breast Cancer on October 2nd, 2015, with this purpose in mind. To improve cognitive function towards resilience using interventions that exercise brain function. Our private group has over 330 members in less than five months. And our centre's blog: Panning for Gold, showcases the many fruitful ways our amazing members discuss their growth from the trauma they endure, through works of art, writing, and science. I would not have been able to sustain and promote the aims of the centre without the vital input of Tamsin Sargeant and Vicky Wilkes who run the centre with me. I have learned more from other women than anything in my academic work, we are more vulnerable than we think we are; we are more resilient than we think we are. Because, from vulnerability stems strength.

For more on Nazanin Derakhshan's work see her Departmental Webpage