Cancer: No Single Path to Recovery

A winding road in Budapest
photo by Peter Sikori via Flickr

(I wrote this for another publication, so the tone is a bit different. I thought some of the ideas might resonate for people.)

Popular magazines tell readers how to live with cancer by having a positive attitude, attending support groups, and managing stress. While these strategies can be important, not everyone will follow the same path in their journey. In my counseling work over the years, I’ve learned there’s no one right way to cope, and variety in experience is the norm.

 Not Everyone Wants to Wear Pink

Now if I were diagnosed with breast cancer, I’d be tempted to use it as an excuse to go on a shopping spree to buy anything pink and sparkly. Yet there are plenty of people who don’t want to wear clothing and jewelry advertising the fact that they have cancer. Take  Amy, for example. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a good friend gave her a T-shirt and baseball cap with the familiar pink ribbon logo on it, joking that she might need the cap when she lost her hair. Although Amy knew the gesture was well meaning, she was taken aback. She wasn’t ready to announce her cancer to the world. On the other end of the spectrum, another woman I know got a tattoo of a breast cancer ribbon and posted a picture of it on Facebook!

Positive Thinking Has Its Pitfalls

I’ve always assumed if I had some sort of life-threatening illness like cancer, I’d be doomed because there’s no way I’d have the requisite “good attitude.” Despite reading Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking when I was a teen, I’ve never quite gotten it down. We’re inundated with the notion that we have to find the positive in every experience. Fortunately, I think it’s a cultural myth that you have to “fight” cancer with positive thinking. From my take on things, positive thinking can backfire. If you’re so busy trying to look on the bright side, you may deny the reality that having cancer is scary. Experiencing a range of feelings including shock, fear, sadness, and even rage is normal. It takes a lot of energy to deny the reality of your feelings, energy that could be better used elsewhere. My advice? Allow yourself to feel it all, and don’t judge yourself if sometimes you simply need to whine and complain. It’s really okay to have a pity party sometimes.

Support Groups Are Optional

Another woman, Michelle, wanted to do everything possible to complement her medical treatment. She had read research that support groups were an important part of the recovery process, and she went to several meetings. Each time she left feeling worse than before. One of the most caring and sensitive people I’ve known, she absorbed all the painful feelings in the room. She also berated herself for any “self pity” she felt, when others clearly had worse situations. In addition, some people are naturally too reserved and private to benefit from support groups. I’ve spent much time reassuring these people that it’s okay— they don’t have to go to a support group. While it’s beyond the scope of this article, the research is actually conflicting on the subject. In 1989 there was a landmark study that argued for the curative power of support groups. More recently, though, systematic reviews of the literature have found there were problems with the research. The bottom line? Do what’s best for you, and keep in mind there are many different ways to get the support you need.

Avoid New Age Guilt

We’ve all heard about the mind-body connection—how stress can play a role in every-thing from the common cold to heart disease. Bob came in every week and said, “Are you sure I didn’t get cancer because of all the stress in my life?” Last year I took a course called Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, taught by professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, Ron Siegel, Ph.D. An important thing I learned was a concept he called New Age guilt. He said that in our zeal to use our minds to transcend pain and suffering, we tend to blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong with our bodies. Dr. Siegel reminded us of what happens to even great meditation masters: No matter how wise, skillful or compassionate they are their bodies fall apart in the end.

Give Yourself a Break

Life is hard. Add cancer into the mix and well, it can seem pretty unmanageable. This isn’t the time to put more pressure on yourself. You don’t have to be a perfect cancer patient—doing things a certain way. You’ll get lots of advice, and you need to judge for yourself what will be helpful. Sometimes positive thinking can perk you up; other times, it is a needless drain. Sometimes you want the support of other people; other times you need some alone time with the cat on your lap and your favorite music. And what you feel like doing one day may be completely out of the question the next. Remember to be gentle with yourself. Life is lived one day at a time.

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