The zen of cancer


The first way cancer changed my life was through the realization that I did in fact have agency. I didn’t have to blindly accept what they told me and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy of sick, exhausted, ok, rinse, repeat. I could and should participate in my recovery. And apart from genetic, biological and environmental factors, taking a greater part in my life might have helped me avoid getting cancer altogether. But first I had to learn that “power” is not the same as “control”.

My first act was to accept that this was happening to me, to accept that I couldn’t do anything about the fact that it was happening, that all I could do was deal with my feelings about it. But that wasn’t really how I dealt with things, as I discovered in one of the first exercises my master neuro-linguistic programmer friend helped me with.

She asked me to list a few things I considered to be achievements in my life and, once I’d done that, to analyse them and extricate the different steps that led to success. The last step had to be how I knew I had succeeded. Drawing on three or four experiences as disparate as passing my driving test and moving to France, I settled on five common steps and drew a cartoon strip of my path to success and my realisation of it.

  • Step 1: research the situation/problem
  • Step 2: formulate a plan
  • Step 3: get on with it
  • Step 4: experience a lag
  • Step 5: re-galvanise myself
  • Step 6: an external source confirms I have succeeded

Working the steps

In the days before the Internet, finding out about any type of illness was really quite hard. My aunt, a nurse, sent me some literature, developed by researchers, and which informed me of average five-year and ten-year survival rates for my type of cancer. Really not helpful. The doctors who treated me also spoke of survival rates, though they did tell me that survival rates don’t say whether the non-survivors died of the cancer or of something else. Either way, this was not encouraging.

And then my friend, who has since gone on to become a psychologist, gave me a precious book: Getting Well Again by Simonton, Simonton and Creighton.

Originally published in 1978, based on cases from the early 70s when a cancer diagnosis was far more likely to be a death sentence, this book is still in print because it still helps people massively. Not only did it give me information based on hundreds of cases about people not statistics, it also gave me a plan.

And that plan was not to “kick cancer’s arse” but to “get well again”. It was not to continue to beat myself up for not living healthily enough, but to recognize that how I lived my life was less of a problem than beating myself up. It was not to let the current of life pull me and push me willy-nilly, nor to furiously paddle upstream battling it, but to steer through the rapids and past the whirlpools to calm waters. In short, it was not to control but to let go.

Simonton et al planted the seed in my mind that my attitude towards my illness, and in fact myself, were the key to my recovery. About three years ago, I came across some research on the same subject. These Canadian therapists and scientists have found common traits in cancer patients who get better, even when their prognosis was dire. They are: “authenticity”, “autonomy”, “a perception of profound change”, “using and valuing self-help”. Also, the cancer was not their primary focus, but rather getting on with their lives, not in denial, but in acceptance. As a result, they reached an increased state of “equanimity and social harmony”, and found greater “meaning and spiritual connection” than before. Their website provides free resources developed from these insights.

Letting go

I never thought I was going to die. That doesn’t mean that “what if I don’t make it?” didn’t cross my mind. But I never really believed it. I imagined my life continuing. I carried on making plans: to get married, to go away for the weekend or on holiday, to plant my garden, or just to go downtown for lunch. I didn’t focus on the daily dressing changes, the weekly blood tests, or the tri-weekly hospital stays. I focused on living my life the best way I could.

Some of my friends worried I was in denial, that it was just as harmful as being over-focused on the illness. And it could have been, if that had been the case. But I was aware of my limits, and took them into account. I was fully conscious that a week earlier or a week later, and I wouldn’t have been able to get married as planned. I made the most of that third week when I felt almost normal again to go to lunch, or away to Barcelona. When I was tired, I rested. And I didn’t hesitate to call on others to help me. Which was new.

My brother-in-law had a much more pessimistic view after his diagnosis of lung cancer. I remember he had been in the hospital “getting tests”, and then he’d called to tell us of the verdict. “The only way I’ll leave this place is feet first,” he said. In less time than they’d given him, he was gone.

Initiating change

Part of the work I do supporting people going through cancer treatment and recovery (my clients) aims to help them become conscious of their attitude. Another exercise I did with my therapist friend was to examine what benefits I derived from being sick. That might sound strange, but we can subconsciously hold on to the sickness in order to continue to get those benefits.

After my initial recoil, I was able to see that I was enjoying not having to go to work every day, and I was enjoying people doing things for me. It made me realise that I needed to learn to ask for help, and that, ultimately, I might need to re-examine my approach to working. Clients of mine have identified as benefits increased attention from their family or feeling justified in refusing or making demands of other people. Together, we’ve worked on their relationships with other family members or their ability to set boundaries.

The work we can do on these fundamental aspects of how we deal with life can only be done little by little. Progress can often be impeded by the fact that we feel like crap. I was recently happy to learn from my cousin, who just recovered from breast cancer, that she didn’t feel sick and ate normally during her treatment. My boyfriend’s mother reacted in much the same way, which leads me to believe that advances in treatments are making life much more tolerable for some cancer patients.

But everyone reacts differently, and when you’re physically sick, you’re reminded that you’re sick. Dealing with all those reminders was a challenge in itself.

Did you read The power of cancer, the first post in this series?

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