Let’s talk: About coping with cancer

The big “C” word. There was a time in the past when talking about cancer, even mentioning the word was taboo. People would often go into seclusion and cope with the illness alone or in the privacy of the family circle. Today, cancer is ubiquitous. I don’t know anybody that hasn’t been touched by this illness in some way. The fear and dread of this disease is often associated with bodily deterioration, disfiguration and death. It’s no wonder it was spoken about in hushed voices in the past.

Today, however, cancer is an illness that is somehow familiar to most of us. I am not an expert in any way about the disease itself, but have firsthand experience as the wife of a cancer patient and as a therapist for families coping with chronic and traumatic illness, including cancer. There are life-saving measures, albeit surgical removal of body parts, chemicals that can cause unbearable sickness and, if a person can survive the treatment, many can go on with their lives.

The greatest psychological and emotional challenge to coping with a life-threatening illness is managing the fear. The moment the diagnosis of cancer is made, life changes dramatically for the person with the illness and those who love and care for him/her.

There is often an initial phase of imagining the worst possible outcome and the dread of the outcome can sometimes weigh heavier than the immediate symptoms. Daruma Psychology here points to mindfulness practice as a way of dealing with fear. We can control our thought process and though it is understandable that a person’s mind would race into the future with dread, stopping and taking a deep breath, coming back to the present moment can help to rein in thoughts that send signals to the brain’s fear receptors that then release damaging stress hormones into the body. When we come back to noticing our breathing in and breathing out, we are in the present moment and such noticing can calm the body. A significant contributor to healing the body is to be able to maintain a sense of calm. So when fear comes up, notice your breath … seven times down, eight times up.

Mindfulness for healing doesn’t mean that one never plans or anticipates the future, but it does mean stopping one’s thoughts from feeding on itself and causing unmanageable anxiety. Both the patient and the caregiver should find a place, a way, to find solace in quiet and calm breathing. Just as you would take a pill, taking time out to calm the fears can make managing the illness easier.

Clearly there is much to say about coping with cancer, so this discussion will continue in future columns, but aside from developing a practice to manage the fear, it is also essential to seek, get and develop support. It’s not a disease that can be dealt with easily and alone.

I have a friend who was diagnosed with brain cancer recently. A soft-spoken, quiet guy, he wrote on his CaringBridge blog (a Website for updating friends and family) that he had joined a support group at the hospital called, “The Hole in the Head Gang.” It was a humorous yet dead-on description of an experience that all the participants had shared. I have found in these support groups, the healing power of camaraderie and love that can emerge when people of disparate backgrounds come together for mutual support. I am currently a member of a women’s support group of caregivers and I’ve found that just being together without having to explain what we are going through is such a comfort and relief.

Some people may not be comfortable seeking support from a group of strangers, but support is essential nonetheless. Letting friends and family and co-workers and neighbors know what you need as they make offerings is an important way to get the specific support you need. People often don’t know how to be of help so when asked, if you can request something specific, it benefits both the giver and the receiver. My husband would rather have soup than visitors. I would rather have love messages than soup or visitors!

There’s much more to say on this subject so feel free to e-mail me with what has been a source of support for you while coping with cancer and I will incorporate your suggestions into the next Daruma Psychology column.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Sacramento and Berkeley with specialization in intergenerational trauma. Her Website is www.satsukiinatherapy.com and she can be reached by e-mail at satsukina44@gmail.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story”). The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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