How to Cope With Cancer

Picture yourself walking down the street where you live. Everything looks normal, but you have a feeling that something is not quite right. Suddenly there’s a rumble and the road buckles up around your feet. You struggle, unable to move forward. Your thoughts become erratic and scattered, just when you need clarity. People come to help you, but that sinking feeling remains and something is telling you that your life will never be the same.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer you know what I am talking about. A cancer diagnosis can knock you out like nothing you’ve experienced before, and your life won't be the same. The learning curve is steep, and you’re forced up that curve at an alarming rate so that you feel unsure of which turns to take. Sometimes you feel as if you’re in a swamp with no road at all, and you rush around desperately looking for solid ground so you can rest. Some of these experiences are common, but everyone walks a different road on the journey with cancer.

Fortunately there is a lot of help out there to guide you to safety. Sometimes there seems to be too much help – too much advice, too many decisions to make. The trick is to listen to your intuition, your “gut instinct” or that “still small voice within”. Take some time alone to ask yourself questions such as “How do I feel about that?” or “What is really important to me?” Listen for the answers which may come to you when you wake up, although it may take a few days or weeks to be clear.

Cancer gives you permission to evaluate your life and prioritize what is truly important to you. Look at your activities and the people around you to see where you gain or lose energy, and reduce the impact that energy robbers have on your health and on your life. If the problem is from a relationship or work, it may be necessary to make some changes. These decisions aren't easy, so make sure you have support from other sources. The process is worthwhile when the payoff is your health, so establish your priorities and values, and be prepared to draw a line in the sand to stay within your comfort level.

I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 1986 and 2 other minor cancers in 1987. I used the wake up call to figure out how to get rid of my excess anger and depression as well as cancer. From a variety of sources I noticed a common thread and created a list of categories which I call “Find Your Own Road” to serve as a guide in finding your unique road to health. It doesn’t mean that you walk the road alone, but that you make choices about which building blocks you will use to build your road, as it will be different from everyone else’s road. There are books, tapes and videos to suit every situation and help you “Find Your Own Road”. Take the time to choose what speaks to you. Read every book with a critical eye and take only what you need, place what you may need in the future on an imaginary shelf, and discard what does not work for you. The act of taking charge and playing an active role in your health care will move you towards a better state of health.

“Find Your Own Road” –an adjunct to conventional Western medicine
1. Nutrition
2. Exercise
3. Sleep and Deep Relaxation
4. Simplicity
5. Spirituality
6. Volunteer Work
7. Support System
8. Humor
9. Art / Music
10. Complementary Therapies
11. Visualization
12. Cognitive Therapy

Items 1, 2, and 3 are the main categories to evaluate for yourself. There are guidelines posted daily about the benefits of healthy food choices and regular exercise. Pay attention – they’re talking to you! With regard to making choices, ask yourself “Is this good for my health?” Listen for the answer, and use it to plan your diet and your exercise regime. Walking is the most basic and therapeutic exercise which can be incorporated into any lifestyle. The time spent sleeping is when your body heals, so give it ample opportunity to do that, especially if you are in active treatment for cancer. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are effective in getting rid of primary cancers, but your body needs help to recuperate and maintain a healthy state afterwards. Deep relaxation means complete mental and physical relaxation for at least 15 minutes a day, this does not include time spent lying on the couch with a remote control. Deep relaxation comes from such things as deep breathing, meditation, prayer, massage.

4. Simplicity in life will help you to focus on your health. In this fast paced, high tech world we have lost sight of our basic needs and the advantages of a simpler lifestyle. Our materialistic wants can be blown out of proportion to what is really important and a cancer diagnosis serves to remind us where our priorities lie. Loving and being loved by others is a prime human need without which life just doesn’t make sense. Dealing with any unfinished business will help you achieve peace of mind and be comfortable with who you are.

5. Spirituality is an individual thing and may or may not include formal religion. Many people say that their faith has sustained them through an ordeal with cancer which is a wonderful thing for them. For those who have no formal religion, the world offers spirituality in many ways: spending time appreciating nature, and expressing gratitude for what you have, will help you to connect with your inner self and also see a bigger picture. Nurturing yourself will ultimately help you to connect with and nurture other people.

6. Volunteer work can provide you with many happy hours. When I was going through chemotherapy, I heard on the radio about a study which said that volunteering gives you satisfaction and promotes longer life. “Right, I can do that” I thought, and added one more block to build my road to health.

7. Building a support system keeps you moving forward on the road. I found support from my husband, other family members, and friends without whom I would not be where I am today. It’s tough to walk a cancer journey alone and well worth the effort to develop a strong support system. Working with other volunteers provides me with peer support; we even ran a retreat for women with breast cancer for 6 years. I am now a life coach and I coach people who would like additional support in coping with cancer.

8. 9. & 10. The fields of music, art and laughter offer a wealth of healing power. At the retreats we provided a variety of activities including music, art, and humor workshops which were well received. There were also sessions with practitioners of Massage, Therapeutic Touch, Reflexology, Reiki, Yoga, Qi Cong, Tai Chi, Spirituality, and others. The idea was to give people a sample of things that would help to promote wellness in their lives after cancer treatment.

11. We all use visualization to get us where we want to go. During my cancer treatment, I used visualization to strengthen my belief that I could do something constructive to heal myself. I found color pictures of T-cells killing cancer cells in the June 1986 edition of National Geographic magazine, and I spent many hours visualizing my cancer cells being snuffed out by hard working killer T-cells. Imagery is an individual thing so it’s important to visualize something that will work for you.

12. Cognitive Therapy has helped me to work through anger, and reduce negative self talk and depression. Positive thinking is encouraging, but without behavior change it can be superficial. Positive behavior comes from working through negative thoughts and letting them go, at the same time replacing them with positive thoughts and actions. Taking charge of your health helps to control stress from fear, anxiety or worry, and is a process which requires ongoing vigilance.

Western medicine can work wonders and I had excellent care through diagnosis, surgery, and chemotherapy in 1986 and 1987. I felt something missing though, and I struggled emotionally for a long time before I felt secure ground beneath me. Learning how to cope has now restored my confidence, but I continue to watch my step and stay focused on my road to good health. When my body tells me I’m a little off course, I make a conscious effort to get back on the road again.

Facing cancer has changed my life – I’m grateful to all the people who have been part of my journey and I appreciate every single day. I believe that by improving my quality of life, I have also been able to enjoy a greater quantity of life.


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