October 2017 Ask the Expert: Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth

October 2, 2017












The dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens.” After cancer, resilience is recognizing the challenges brought on by diagnosisinfo-icon and treatment while taking steps to copeinfo-icon and move forward.

Tapping into your resilience may even result in post-traumatic growth, PTG, change for the better that comes after struggling with a major life crisis, such as cancer.

In October, Living Beyond Breast Cancer experts Susan Ash-Lee, LCSW, and Jill Mitchell, PhD, LCSW, OSW-C, will answer your questions about resilience and breast cancer. They will address what resilience looks like in everyday life, how it can affect your experience with breast cancer, how to increase your resilience, and more.

If you have questions about resilience and post-traumatic growth, ask our expert today.

We will answer as many questions as possible, but we cannot answer all questions submitted. We will post answers on an ongoing basis throughout October. Submit your questions now and check back here for updates.


Remember: we cannot provide diagnoses, medical consultations or specific treatment recommendations. This service is designed for educational and informational purposes only. The information is general in nature. For specific healthcare questions or concerns, consult your healthcare providerinfo-icon because treatment varies with individual circumstances. The content is not intended in any way to substitute for professional counselinginfo-icon or medical advice.

How do you know if you’re as resilient as you can be?

First of all, let’s clarify what "resilience" is. People have defined resilience in various ways. Some see it as “bouncing back from adversity.” Others see it as growing in positive ways after a loss or traumainfo-icon. Another way to think of resilience is as “bouncing forward,” which involves a willingness to let go of a past or to accept the present and to continue moving toward a fulfilling life. 

There are many skills or strengths that can support resilience, such as mindfulness, creativity, adaptability, having a flexible perspective, etc. Perhaps one of the best ways to support resilience for yourself is to become more aware of your own natural strengths and to use or build upon those. There is an interesting tool called the VIA Survey of Character Strengths that can help you identify some of your own natural character strengths, which can enhance your ability to be resilient in the face of adversity. Once you become more aware of your own natural strengths, then ask yourself, “Am I allowing myself to use this strength as much as I’d like? And if not, what might I make more time for in my day?” Building on your strengths can help you to be as resilient as possible.

Here are some ways to build resilience:

  • Connect with people
  • Practice gratitude
  • Get support if you are struggling
  • Find your strengths and use them
  • Make sure you get enough sleep
  • Learn how to meditate
  • Get outside and enjoy nature

I was feeling pretty resilient through much of this process, but then I started chemotherapy and the stress and fatigue of it are getting to me. How can I stop my sense of resilience from slipping away?

First, invite some compassion, and patience, for yourself. Resilience is not about denying yourself the opportunity to grieve, or to feel the losses and challenges of dealing with cancer. The reality is that the stressinfo-icon and fatigueinfo-icon of treatment will get to you at times. When that happens, acknowledge it. Instead of trying to push it away, really acknowledge it. Become aware of how lousy you’re feeling and put a label to it. Perhaps even say out loud, “I feel like ____ right now!” Allow yourself to have some “down” days. And then also allow yourself to invite the possibility of resilience with each new day or each new moment by taking some small doable action that you know brings a little bit of vitality or shift in perspective in your experience. 

For example, something like:

  • Taking a 10-15 minute walk
  • Sitting outside in nature
  • Listening to your favorite music
  • Talking with a friend
  • Identifying three things that you feel honestly grateful for and writing them down on paper or sharing them with a loved one

Ultimately, allowing yourself to authentically acknowledge what you are feeling, instead of putting all of your energy toward struggling against those difficult feelings, will allow you more freedom to also pursue that which you really value in life. But it’s also important to acknowledge that this is sometimes easier said than done. The other key is to welcome compassion, instead of self-flagellation, when you don’t follow through as you had initially intended.

How can I help my kids be more resilient as they go through this experience with me?

Create a Circle of Support: The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has found “the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiverinfo-icon, or other adult.” Creating a list of loving and stable adult family members, teachers and friends who can mentor and support your child throughout your cancer treatment can expand his or her circle of support and bolster your child’s resilience.

Communication Is Key: Giving your child the opportunity to share in the challenge you are facing by being honest with them about what is going on in an age appropriate way can reduces their fears. Find out what your child knows about your illness and follow their lead on how much they want to know, and when. Communication happens over time and preserves trust. Make sure they know that they can ask questions, either of you, or help them identify another trusted adult or mental healthinfo-icon professional who they can speak to openly about what they are experiencing, and have their questions addressed honestly. 

Timing is Everything: Allow your children the time to adjust alongside you and the rest of the family.  Help them to find a safe outlet for their thoughts and feelings. Children aren’t mini-adults – they adjust and copeinfo-icon intermittently and may need more reassurance and “you time” than usual. You may want to form an alliance with your child’s teacher and school counselor or connect with the oncologyinfo-icon social workerinfo-icon at your cancer center.

You may find the following resources helpful: 

How do resilience and fear of recurrence relate to each other? I think my fears are keeping me from coping, moving forward, and growing.

First, it’s very possible to have fear of recurrenceinfo-icon AND to also be resilient. Being resilient doesn’t require that you “get rid of your fears.” To tell someone who is afraid to “just stop being afraid” – how well does that work? It doesn’t! In fact, sometimes we can feel stuck when we put all of our focus on the need to get rid of a particular fear or emotion. 

So instead of trying to get rid of your fears, I would encourage you to move toward acceptance of the fears AND still pursue resilience. How do you do this? Acknowledge the fear(s). Sometimes it’s helpful to ask yourself, “does this fear (of recurrence) serve me? And if so, how?” Fear can be a wonderful motivator, for example, to motivate you to keep follow-up doctors’ appointments when it may be the last thing you want to do. Can you befriend that part of the fear, or even thank the part of the fear that keeps you trying to live a healthy life, following through with your medical appointments, or seeking out the doctor when a potential symptominfo-icon arises?

This doesn’t mean you have to like being afraid. But would accepting those fears, instead of fighting them, allow you to put your energy and focus toward what you do want to move toward in life, instead of what you want to get rid of?

How common is post-traumatic growth?

Post-traumatic growth, or PTG, is positive psychologicalinfo-icon change in the face of a significant loss, adversity or traumainfo-icon. PTG tends to be experienced in five areas:

  • An opening up to new possibilities and new priorities
  • Improved relationships
  • An enhanced appreciation of life
  • A greater awareness of one’s own strengths
  • A sense of spiritual growth or a strengthening of beliefs.

On average, half to three-quarters of people experiencing a significant trauma or loss, including a diagnosisinfo-icon of cancer, will also experience some form of post-traumatic growth. Some research shows that women, older adults and those with better social supportinfo-icon are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth.

That said, I want to also highlight that the fact that people experience post-traumatic growth does not mean that people also don’t experience a whole range of challenging emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, grief, etc., in the process. Sometimes the more traumatic an experience is, the more opportunity for growth it can also provide.

More In Emotional Health

Article August 31, 2015
Blog Stories January 7, 2015