Moving forward mentally after the shock of a cancer diagnosis or physically after difficult cancer treatments is challenging. You need to protect your emotional wellbeing. You are likely to feel vulnerable.
How do you do that? In ways large and small.
First, you learn to say “no” to anyone and anything that unsettles your emotional equilibrium. You get off the Internet and out in the sunshine. You stop a co-worker from telling you about an uncle with the same diagnosis. You ask for help and accept it gratefully. You avoid movies about people dying of cancer. You laugh often. You remind yourself – and your medical caregivers, if necessary – that you are a whole human being, so much more than a cancer patient.
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Sometimes, people first must find the courage to protect themselves.
“Speaking up for yourself may rub up against some value, some self-image, that people hold,” says Leslie Davenport, a licensed therapist in practice in Northern California for over two decades.
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To overcome this, Davenport recommends coming up with a mantra on the order of, “This is a time in my life when my healing and my needs must come first.” She suggested practicing with a close friend to get comfortable saying “no” to uncomfortable situations and saying “yes” to the right kind of support. Davenport also gave the nod to my philosophy: “Life is too short to be subtle.”
In addition to her private practice, Davenport works at Smith Integrative Oncology in San Francisco, which offers an integrated approach to cancer treatment. She also is the author of Healing and Transformation through Self-Guided Imagery, teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies and John F. Kennedy University and is a contributor to Huffington Post.
“Dealing with cancer is a time of shifting terrain for a lot of people, a time of many moods,” Davenport says. “Sometimes you don’t want empathy or pity. You want friends to treat you as they always have. Other times, even on the same day, you want to be cared for.” That dichotomy, she says, is OK.
Manage Your ‘Junk-Mail Thoughts’
Davenport adds that because people living with cancer face so many unknowns, they often experience a higher level of fear.
“We all have a lot of junk-mail thoughts. One good strategy is cultivating the ability to step back and notice that a story playing out in the mind is not a prediction and not a statement of fact, but a fear,” she says. “From this detached place, you can decide whether the thought is something to follow up on or, if you recognize it as a fear, you can ride the wave of the feeling and then let it pass.”
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When I got cancer the first time, some 20 years ago, I read a lot about the disease. It was depressing. No, it was terrifying.
Someone suggested I read Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book Love, Medicine and Miracles, which is about people who had survived cancer. From then on, I stopped reading about cancer and read only about survivors. These were the people I wanted to emulate, the experts I wanted to hear from, the stories I wanted to know.
Today there are almost 14.5 million cancer survivors in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. Over the next decade, that number is expected to grow to almost 19 million. That doesn’t surprise Siegel.
“Psychologists and psychiatrists have always realized there are survival behaviors and personalities, but oncologists have not,” Siegel said in a phone interview from his home outside New Haven, Conn.
Think Like a Survivor
People with “survivor personalities,” Siegel says, describe their cancer diagnosis as “a wake-up call,” “a new beginning” and motivation to “pay attention to feelings.” People with the opposite point of view speak of cancer as “failure,” “pressure” or “a roadblock.”
“We doctors need to teach people how to cope with stress and how to control their depression, their fears and other self-destructive emotions,” Siegel says. “Our body chemistry is altered by our beliefs and feelings. This is science.”
Some scientists dispute that. Many studies have concluded that emotional well-being is not an independent predictor of survival in individuals with cancer. Plus, no one with cancer wants to carry the additional burden of responsibility for getting the disease or for determining the outcome. Still, Siegel’s work can encourage people to move forward after a cancer diagnosis. In some ways, that is revolutionary, coming not long after a time when few would even say the word aloud.
Siegel recommends that survivors find relationships and connections, with people or pets, and seek meaning at all levels. “Whether you decide to rescue animals or help homeless people or do other volunteer work, having meaning in your life keeps you going after a cancer diagnosis,” he says.
Since his groundbreaking book was published in 1986, Siegel has written more than a dozen additional books, produced audio books and DVDs, published numerous articles and written a blog. He also conducts cancer support groups.
Embrace the Present
Recently I spoke to a cancer support group in San Francisco. Participants, women and men ranging in age from 26 to over 75, all had different kinds of cancer and walked different paths to healing. They did share a common philosophy, one rich in wisdom that any of us might embrace.
Whenever they are asked how they are, they favor this response: “I’m OK today.”
That's a good place to start.
Patricia Corrigan, a cancer survivor, has a degree in health education and is a co-author with two doctors of Chemotherapy and Radiation for Dummies, which one reader dubbed “the big book of hope.”