One minute you are ok, the next helpless and frail: Coping with sudden life-changing illness or injury

Sudden frailty (c)

Every day I walk past a bridge, and every day it reminds me to take nothing for granted, especially my health. Because there was a time, when in a matter of weeks I had physically and mentally aged, unable to climb the bridge.

Going back to ‘normal’ after life changing illness or injury is impossible, unless we can make peace with some harsh experiences.

But how?

So far, my worst case scenario came true, when I was treated for breast cancer in 2012/13. You don’t need to have been treated for cancer to know what I am talking about. So much of our experiences, lessons and coping strategies overlap – irrespective of our individual stories.

Even if others think we are back to ‘normal’, we will have seen and felt too much to just carry on as if nothing has happened.

The emotional and mental impact of life-changing illnesses or injuries is vast and can be long-term.

It is as if we have been given a fast-forward taste of our worst nightmare and our own mortality.

I had to deal with that, gradually. And over time there is one thing which has become my guiding light.

I had to make peace with the experience I have been left struggling with most: sudden frailty and helplessness.

This was something I had not been prepared for and it shook my world.

I needed to face up to frailty:

  • the one I had experienced;
  • the one that has remained;
  • and the one that is yet to come.



I came across at least five types of frailty:

1. Physical frailty.

One week before my operation I carried my bicycle up and across the bridge. Six weeks later, due to chemotherapy, I was unable to climb the same steps without holding onto the bannister and later-on, without holding on to a friend.

Physical frailty and helplessness might happen again, quickly and unexpectedly, faster than the normal ageing process.

2. Emotional and mental frailty.

A sudden life-changing illness or injury plays havoc with our emotional and mental wellbeing. We develop anxiety, depression, grief, anger and more, even if treatment is long over.

It was as if I did not know myself anymore. It was hard work to keep going and hard work to come out of it.

I know there is no reason why this cannot happen again. For now, I have to let it go.

3. Relationships are frail.

Crisis teaches us who is there for us.

In my case, some people were, but not many. And of those who were there, not all helped me in a way that was helpful. Others of whom I expected it the least came to my aid, sometimes without my asking. I have made friends and lost friends.

I had to make peace with that disappointment and let it go, because each time I thought of it, a toxic emotional wave moved across my heart.

4. Financial and social frailty.

Illness carries a financial toxicity. It costs money, there is no two ways about it. Depending on our circumstances, we may end up financially vulnerable.

I was unable to work for over a year with very little coming in. I, like many, felt brutally stripped of my social status and value. My abilities and achievements no longer mattered to others or to me. I felt very insecure.

I learnt that I need to plan ahead and that I do have value – whatever happens.

5. Spiritual frailty.

When we are at crisis point, we can be forgiven for wondering what it is all about. We may doubt a lot of what we may have believed in. I do not just mean religion, but our values, principles, purpose and identity.

I had to make peace with my questions and my new answers. I have changed and grown. And so it makes sense to re-evaluate my principles and beliefs. Because I need to remain authentic, grounded in and guided by integrity. For me this is about my spirit and my soul.

Making peace with my frailty: What difference has it made?

I am putting myself first. Self care, pacing myself and looking after myself is essential to my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Now I no longer take on too many responsibilities and obligations. I need to have as much freedom as possible to manage my energies.

This has consequences for the way I earn a living and the way in which I socialize.

It is hard, when we have people depending on us, like children or aging relatives.

But for the sake of all our well-being, I had to make choices. I am clear about them to others who are impacted by them.

Equally, I do not want to become a burden on others who may not want to or are incapable of taking care of me, in a manner I want and need – when the time comes.

I do not know what it will feel like

  • if/when the cancer returns,
  • or I fall ill some other way,
  • or when I die.

For now, having made peace with frailty — my own and that of others — has started to lighten my load. And I trust deep down, whatever lies ahead, I will feel stronger and more grounded and peaceful, than I was before.

It is a process and attitude which will evolve until I die.

For now, I walk past the bridge every day. It is my reminder of frailty and the reality that there is no reason why sudden frailty cannot happen again. And I have got to make peace with that.

 Life is uncertain. It has always been. And it will always be.



(Based on an article first published by The Mighty. Published by Huffington Post.)

Feature image courtesy of geralt


  1. Thank you for expressing this so eloquently and in a way that someone who doesn’t have cancer might think again about what we deal with for our lifetimes in some cases,

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