I came upon this pond while hiking the other day. It was teeming with life. The bullfrogs, the lily pads, the water striders, the reeds, the crickets, the moss, the rotting lake weeds, the kingfishers and herons, the turtles, the mosquitos, all enjoying the summer sun and keeping things in balance.
Just as it takes all kinds of life to keep a pond’s ecosystem in balance, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around, and all kinds of coping to get through cancer. For me, it was important to learn more about everything—my disease, the treatment, my prognosis, my likelihood of recurrence, how to improve my health, and why it happened in the first place. I just kept asking questions and seeking answers until I had written a book. But clearly my way is not the only way.
And now, as I support other patients through their own cancer experiences, I wonder, how do they cope and what can I do that best fits their preferred mode of coping?
Laughing, Fighting, Denying, Praying
Augustina, with metastatic breast cancer, laughs every time I speak with her. “What are you gonna do?” she asks in her heavy Jamaican accent. She has family, friends, food, shelter, and enough interesting things to do and think about each day, that she doesn’t worry about the cancer. “It’s gonna do what it’s gonna do.”
Ruth is a fighter. She is fighting her breast cancer with daily chemo and radiation, while fighting with her family over how she wants to be supported. The adrenaline of the fight seems to keep her going—she is determined to beat it all through sheer persistence.
Alan didn’t want to know about his pancreatic cancer, didn’t want to think about his prognosis. He kept his head down, did what the doctors told him to do and didn’t ask questions. And if anyone asked him about it, he’d just say he was fine, everything will be fine, until it wasn’t.
Phyllis prays every day, multiple times a day, and “thanks God” when she makes it through another one. She does what she can to support herself, including pursuing a regimen of chemo and immunotherapy for her recurrent ovarian cancer. But she says, “It’s in God’s hands, not mine.”
So, I help Augustina laugh, and smile when I hear the laughter in her voice. I encourage Ruth in her battles, giving her ammunition she needs to continue her fight. And knowing the treatment plan and the strength of her faith, I reassure Phyllis that she is in good hands. Unfortunately, Alan no longer needs any support. But so many cancer patients do.
The Untidy Problem
I continue to be astounded by the lack of understanding that cancer is emotional, that there is a nearly universal need for support, and that so many in the medical community and society at large, are willing to overlook this need in the rush to keep things tidy. Like our ability to ignore poverty, homelessness, racism, food insecurity and other problems in our society, we stigmatize and sweep under the rug the emotional toll that cancer takes on patients and their loved ones.
I find myself frustrated and angry about this, and not really sure how to facilitate change beyond my small world—advocating for patients through two local hospitals, and shouting on my blog and in social media about the fact that cancer is emotional, that the disease and its treatment cause biological changes that influence brain chemistry, that the need to cope with the psychological aspects of cancer can be every bit as overwhelming as the physical needs, and that how people choose to cope with their disease is personal.
All Kinds of Solutions
My book, The Big Ordeal, Understanding and Managing the Psychological Turmoil of Cancer, will be released in February 2021, and I hope that it will draw further attention to this need. But how do we spread the word so that every cancer patient knows that fear, stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression are common side effects of cancer? So that every cancer patient knows from the beginning that there is support out there to help you cope, no matter what your preferred coping style might be? And so that every patient understands that you don’t need to feel isolated and alone because you have cancer?
It takes all kinds to solve problems too. And it will take all kinds of solutions to fix this one. I’d love your suggestions. Won’t you jump into the pond with me? What can you envision and how can we work together to help?