“You have cancer” are devastating words no one wants to hear. They trigger paralyzing feelings of fear, anger, and despair. While doctors try different ways of delivering the bad news, their recommended treatment options are usually the same: radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. Images of hair loss, retching, and muscle wasting can haunt cancer patients long before they actually experience side effects from these treatments, which, sadly, don’t guarantee a cure.
Emotions: Cause and Remedy
Mood swings are normal and common with treatment, but studies do show that an optimistic outlook can deliver better outcomes. Feelings of anger and despair are somewhat better than denial, which brings an unrealistic decision to not do anything. But wallowing in self-pity or raging at some unjust god can paralyze you. What’s more, these very emotions could have actually caused your tumour.
Make the choice to focus on positive emotions. Try these five practical steps.
1. Understand your cancer and how your treatment works.
Learn everything about your specific cancer and the full range of treatment options. Find a doctor you are comfortable with, who welcomes a participative approach and understands the value of complementary, alternative treatments. Spend time doing research, list down questions and keep asking until you get a satisfactory answer. Learning more allows you to plan and make informed decisions.
Knowing what to expect cultivates hopeful purpose that eliminates fear and uncertainty.
2. Believe that your treatment works.
You’ve done your research, found your doctor, and decided on a course of treatment. The next step is to begin and to keep going. This is daunting but if you take it one session at a time, all you actually need to do is to keep showing up. It’s easier to show up and endure uncomfortable side effects when you believe in your treatment. Watch your habitual self-talk. Think “this is making me better” instead of “this is so horrible.” Move your focus from suffering to healing.
3. Recognize the body-mind connection and the body’s natural healing ability.
Our body’s default state is health. Cuts, bruises, even fractures heal without intervention. Illness comes from toxic stuff we unknowingly pour into our bodies and from destructive thoughts we feed our minds. Recognizing this will guard you against the dangers of overtreatment, guide you to a healthy diet, and lead you to positive emotions. Still not convinced? Have you experienced an acidic flash in your gut during an angry outburst, low appetite from depression, or inability to sleep when stressed? Do you recall feeling super energized performing tiring work because you’re doing it with someone you like or calmly handling a verbal attack because you just completed a spiritual retreat? How you think and feel affects your body. Choose healing thoughts.
4. Know that life goes on; keep occupied.
Cancer brings feelings of self-pity and anger at being “singled out for prolonged suffering.” Side effects from treatment add to this false perception. You’ve been dealt a challenge, you’re feeling fatigued (the most common side effect) and your life has changed. This is all true. What is false? Your situation/condition is not forever and you don’t have a monopoly on suffering. Every day, people the world over suffer from poverty, kidnapping, terrorist attacks, and natural calamities. Try framing your present situation against that backdrop. Respect your diagnosis and feelings of sadness but keep looking outward to engage with life. Learn a new skill, take up a new hobby, or chat with a friend who needs comforting. Life’s not just about you and you have not lost your capacity to contribute. Embrace that liberating, empowering fact.
5. Find a support team.
Sharing news about a cancer diagnosis is tricky at best and excruciating at worst. Deciding to keep it quiet saves you from having to explain it over and over to people and then getting unsolicited, conflicting advice that confuses rather than helps. But neither is it helpful to go it alone. You need a support team. Accept help from family and friends; it gives them a way of coping. Your team can include some family members, close friends, your doctor, a spiritual adviser and other cancer patients. You could receive steadfast presence from family, loving gestures/fun distractions from friends, treatment guidance from your doctor, and faith in something bigger than your cancer from your spiritual adviser. From people who are also walking the cancer journey, you have the license to cry, scream or curse for an hour or two. Meet with them regularly and take turns giving and receiving comfort. Your support team has got your back. That’s another reason to be optimistic.
The cancer journey is challenging and recovery is uncertain but a positive outlook, an open mindset, and the availability of effective alternative and complementary approaches allow patients to live relatively full lives beyond and despite their diagnosis.