"You have cancer"
. Three terrifying words that no one wants to hear, but that too many do. Is it the beginning of the end, a death sentence, or the start of a process of becoming a survivor?
The medical disease is only one part of how the individual’s life is impacted and how they will experience their illness and subsequently live their life. What determines the outcome?
First and foremost is the person’s attitude. Are they a positive, resilient person or someone who buckles emotionally, giving into the fear of this news? What determines a person’s resilience, strength, optimism, and ability to compartmentalize the disease, keeping it in perspective, not allowing it to take over their lives or redefine who they are as a person, partner, parent, friend, grandparent, or professional? Of course it is our life experiences, our history of overcoming prior challenges in life, our self-confidence, our inner strength, and our belief systems; but equally important is our support system.
Your support system
will determine whether you feel isolated, hopeless, and despondent or hopeful, encouraged, and empowered.
Where does our support come from? Family, loved ones, friends, co-workers, and professionals, can provide a sense of community, so that we feel safe, supported, and optimistic during those most frightening times that will inevitably be a part of your recovery.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was thirteen and a half. The prognosis was not good as this was over fifty years ago. She lived ten years, outliving all of the projections, with dignity, hope, and fulfillment. She enriched the lives of so many others with her nurturing, optimistic, and unyielding personality. There was no quit in her. She gave me the hope and strength that I needed to become a resilient person. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer shortly after my mother died and he didn’t live very long. I loved them both, but what made their response to their diagnoses so different, she with courage and hope, he less so? I believe it was their attitudes, resulting from their support systems. My mother had my father, in addition to her children and her siblings, and her work community. My father no longer had his life partner, siblings, or a work community. I believe this made all the difference in the contrasting attitudes, outlook, and lifespan of my parents.
When I was diagnosed with radical prostate cancer--I actually wasn’t diagnosed as much as I self diagnosed with the help of my wife, despite the medical community’s denial of what I was telling them. Don’t conclude that I don’t respect the medical community. I do and I ultimately received excellent treatment from wonderful and caring professionals once I advocated strongly and found those who would listen to the patient—me. They ultimately became part of my caring community.
The message nevertheless for now is "trust your instincts"
if they are strong, and find those wonderful professionals who exist. You know your body better than anyone else. Yes there were moments of fear, but I immediately identified with my mother’s strength and optimism, and joined by my wife, decided that I was going to be not only a survivor, but also a warrior. As a psychotherapist, corporate leader, and executive coach, I have spent the better part of the last forty years espousing and encouraging people to live by the Serenity Prayer---control what you can, accept what you can’t, and be wise enough to know the difference, focusing most of your energy on what is within your control. Note to readers only for clarification: No, I’m not a recovering alcoholic, though I would not be ashamed if I was.
I am writing this now because today is the one-year anniversary of my surgery, recovery, and becoming a survivor and my wife’s and my 41st Anniversary. I am both proud and humble to call myself a survivor. Proud because I believe that my courage and hopefulness are a big part of it. Humble because I believe that I was fortunate to have a strong, smart, and encouraging partner, my wife Lynn, four wonderful children (children in law included), five amazing and joyous grandchildren, and many caring and wonderful friends. What did they all have in common? They gave me love, encouragement, strength, counsel, and hope and I accepted it. They are my support community; they never doubted that I’d be a survivor, an optimist who is committed to fully participate in and contribute to life for as long as I’m blessed with it. Yes, I’m also a spiritual person and I believe that helps.
Has the disease changed me? Yes and no. I still work as much as I did (back to work one week post surgery despite advice to take off three weeks), because I love my work and gain a sense of purpose and community from it, all of which contributes to my well being. However, I also take more time to treat myself and those I love most in ways that demonstrate my love and appreciation for them and myself.
I believe that self-awareness is the first step in change, success, and in this case, being a survivor. Know who you are and what you need and then have the courage to go out and find and embrace it. Is it that easy? Absolutely not! You need support to survive. So what if you are not as fortunate as me and don’t have the support or even more challenging, if those whom you expected support from back away?
You might ask why people would back away? It’s not just about you or your diagnosis, or how they feel about you! It’s sometimes about them, their fears, their discomfort, and their anxiety in not knowing how to respond or support you. This can be excruciatingly painful at a time when you are feeling so vulnerable, so frightened, so in need of love, support, and encouragement.
Look closely to those supports that might be more available than you realize—embrace them and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Everyone fears rejection, but if we never ask, we may never know where help and support will come from. What to do if you feel isolated and in need of more support? There are many wonderful resources: support groups, caring and talented medical communities, a compassionate and empathetic therapist, peer groups comprised of other survivors, friends from the past, relatives that you may have lost contact with, and cancer hot-lines. There are many people who enjoy and gain their identity by helping others—have the courage to find them and seek their support, kindness, and empathy. Your appreciation and recognition of them will enrich their lives and gives them purpose.
I was fortunate to have an amazing family support group, but I needed to find the right professional support group—hospital, surgeon, and follow up doctors and nurses. Their willingness to listen and their skills probably saved my life, but their kindness, empathy, and optimism is what gave me hope, resilience, and my quality of life. It’s not how long you live, but how much life you experience in the years that you live—
That has become my mantra and as I wrote it, it brought a smile to my face. I hope that this article and my experience will bring hope to your life, undiscovered options, an expanded community of support, many smiles to your face, and that you will embrace it all in a life filled with joy, health, love, and meaning.
What is your experience with or opinion on building support throughout cancer? Share your story in the comments below.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.