GRACE :: Coping with Cancer / Social Work

Getting Your Mind Around Cancer

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Hello again! It definitely has been a very long time since my last entry in GRACE; I’ve missed all of you!

I retired at the end of June from the Swedish Cancer Institute, and have just been lazy since then. I figured I was entitled to a couple of months of doing nothing, after 23 years working there! But now, I am rested, relaxed, and raring to go!

Since coping with a cancer diagnosis and living with the disease is so difficult for many patients, I thought I would just start out with some simple thoughts from a handout I would routinely give to patients to help them deal with their stress and anxiety. I hope it will be helpful to you!

People have recovered from every type of cancer.
Cancer patients can expect to live longer than either heart attack or stroke victims.
A positive attitude helps let go of stress and worry (I know that is not always easy to maintain).
It helps to learn the details of your kind of cancer.
A fighting spirit is healthier than stoic acceptance.
Many patients whom doctors consider difficult are those who are most likely to do well, or live longer than expected.
A fighting spirit can strengthen your immune response.
It’s better to express your feelings than to bottle them up.
Hope and trust help counteract stress.
Stress comes from your own interpretation of events (This is a tough one to get a handle on. Consider how your own self-talk impacts your thinking about your situation).
Hope gives you control.
Refusal to hope is a decision to die (One must hope that the treatment will be of value in extending life, or why bother to take it? At that point, it is self-defeating.)
Consider yourself an equal partner with your doctor in achieving recovery or response.
Listen to your body.
Remember you have power over your body.
Don’t make a career of having cancer.
Don’t save up real living for tomorrow, Live your best today and every day.

I would love to hear from you, and your friends and relatives; especially with any comments or ideas or questions you may have that could benefit you and yours in traversing the cancer journey.

Nice to be back on board!

10 Responses to Getting Your Mind Around Cancer

  • recce101 says:

    Thanks, Leah, it’s great to hear from you again!

    On another board we had an extended discussion on dealing with cancer, and whether members found it useful to think of themselves in a “fight” or “battle” with the disease. Most did, but the person who started the thread didn’t, and this was my response to her:

    “I’m also a bit uneasy with the term, but for a different reason. It implies that we’re fighting a foreign invader in the same way that we would attack a virus or bacterial infection. Many people find it helpful to think of cancer as an invader, but I don’t. Cancer cells are my own cells that have been damaged in some way, possibly but not necessarily by a foreign substance, but which for some reason did not die along with the 50 billion other damaged or “used up” cells in my body that undergo programmed cell death (apoptosis) every day.

    “While we may need some emergency assistance in the form of chemo or radiation to get control of the situation, the long-term solution is to strengthen the body’s processes to the point where they can once again dispose of potentially cancerous cells as they’re designed to do. A mind game? Maybe, but whatever mental energy I devote to the cancer issue I’d prefer to place on the positive, process-strengthening side, with the goal of putting that part of my life back on autopilot.”

    Would appreciate others’ perspectives on this point. Aloha,


  • Roger Racer says:

    Your terrific listing relates to my post, “Why Lung Cancer has Been a Good Thing”:

    Thanks Leah,

  • ts says:

    Thank you for the timely return. With the recurrance now confirmed, I can use the boost.

  • Terryl says:

    I took particular note of the advise to not “make a career of having cancer”. I came to realize a few months ago that cancer was taking over more of my life than I liked. I had stopped doing many of the things I enjoy and had stopped taking care of myself in ways that I had always done before (taking time to plan healthy meals, exercise, performing my skin care regime for example). Until this realization I thought I had been handling my diagnosis fairly well. Everyone tells me how ” positive” my attitude is. While this may be true, there are many ways to exibit attitude, and I believe the most important is not just how we think…but what we do.
    I am putting forth more conscience effort now to participate in activities I previously enjoyed, as well as trying to remember to care about my appearance even when chemo side effects make feel like I don’t want or need to. The bottom line is I do need to whether I feel like it or not. The more I do for the healthy me, the less prominent cancer is in my life. I have been dealing with this for more than three years now, and it is becoming less and less the monster, and more just an annoying little bug. I don’t know if it will stay that way should my cancer begin to progress again, but for now, I do my best to have my cancer treatment be a small part of my life, and not my life be part of cancer treatment.

  • Incurable optimist says:

    “I am putting forth more conscience effort now to participate in activities I previously enjoyed, as well as trying to remember to care about my appearance even when chemo side effects make feel like I don’t want or need to. I have been dealing with this for more than three years now, and it is becoming less and less the monster, and more just an annoying little bug. I don’t know if it will stay that way should my cancer begin to progress again, but for now, I do my best to have my cancer treatment be a small part of my life, and not my life be part of cancer treatment.”

    Absolutely agree terryl.That’s one reason I feel strongly about chemo side effects like hair loss, which make it impossible to avoid thinking about the problem almost constantly and have a really serious effect on self image, stress levels and ability to function normally in a social context.

  • mo wanchuk says:


    Thanks for some uplifting words.

  • Catharine says:

    Leah –

    Wow! I really needed this kind of lift today. Thank you so much. (And thank you Terryl for your post as well. That’s a POV I need to work on.)

    – Catharine

  • Leah de Roulet says:

    Thank you all for your warmth and responses! Reading your comments started me thinking about so many patients who have voiced the same concerns about being in a battle, and not feeling like a warrior; or really having to work at not allowing the cancer and its treatment to take over their lives; or being overly stressed and worried about how and why they have cancer in the first place, and what should they do to prevent it from recurring or just simply get in remission.

    Ned brought up an interesting point about his belief that his own body should be able to fight his cancer if his immune system could be somehow “powered up” to fight the cancer cells. I have heard so many people say that and it seems to be a widespread ideation that if one could just turn on or strengthen their immune systems they could do a better job of fighting their disease. There is an entire health care “business” that markets this notion that with all of the appropriate vitamins, minerals, diets, exercise and life plans, we can win the battle or even prevent cancer in the first place.

    The problem with this idea is that for the most part, cancer patients do not have a dysfunctional immune system; they are not like patients who have HIV/AIDS whose bodies may be afflicted with all sorts of what are called “opportunistic infections”. Most of the cancer patients I have known over the years almost always say, right off the bat, “I’ve never been sick a day in my life, I can’t believe this has happened to me.” And, they are right, except for their cancer, they are usually quite healthy!

    My own theory about this, and it is just my theory; I would welcome Dr. West’s take on this, goes something like this: The function of the immune system is to fight foreign invaders, generally single celled organisms like fungi, viruses and bacteria, that are easily recognized by the parts of the immune system that once they recognize them as a foreign entity, gobble them up. Put another way, these foreign cells are seen as non-self, and therefore must be destroyed. The problem is that in its unicellular state, a cancer cell is not recognized as non-self, because it isn’t, it is self. And, since one of the characteristics of the cancer cell is that it no longer responds to the body’s signals that govern cell reproduction, the turn on, turn off signals, the cell rapidly becomes a multi-cellular organism, one which the immune system is powerless to destroy, even though by then it is probably recognized by the immune system as dangerous, possibly even foreign. But by then it is too late, and the cancer is well on its way to becoming large enough to invade the body’s vascular system, enter the blood system and begin to nest and grow in other parts of the body; the process called metastasis. As far as I know, there has been no documented evidence that trying to strengthen the immune system either works, or even helps to control the growth process of cancer. That is why we use the three tried and true modalities that we know can do the job; Surgery, Radiation Therapy and Chemotherapy; in spite of their side effects.

    I do understand that for most patients, trying to control what they can is a very important psychological factor, and one I totally applaud. Dealing with the stress in your life caused by the disease and its treatments is another good way to control what you can. Meditation, exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, prayer, and enjoying your life to the fullest, are helpful and inexpensive ways to cope. Many patients do seek out the services of a good Naturopathic physician and benefit from their services, so don’t hesitate to do so if you believe this is helpful.

    I loved what Terryl said in her comment; that the more she does for her healthy self, the less prominent the cancer is in her life. It was nice to hear from Catharine, who completely agreed with Terryl, and was working on doing exactly that. I appreciate all of your comments, and am always anxious to hear your thoughts! Keep them coming.


  • recce101 says:

    Thanks for the detailed response, Leah. This is one of many areas where my reach exceeds my grasp, and looking again at my comment (which I first put together a year or two ago) it appears I realized that at the time. I allowed myself some wiggle room by writing “strengthen the body’s processes” rather than “strengthen the body’s immune system” since they are not synonymous and I think of the second as a subset of the first. Understanding these processes is still beyond me, but I see the NCI’s discussion at…

    …uses the self and non-self concept you mentioned and touches on some advanced work that may enable the immune system to be more effective in attacking cancer cells. I guess that would bring us back to the “fight” and “battle” words which now start to make more sense to me. Aloha,


  • jdeatmon says:

    As a breast cancer survivor and person who now owns a business supporting and rehabbing cancer patients – I found your words of encouragement right on target and they should be posted or handed out by every physician – do you mind if I reproduce them – giving you credit- for just that purpose. These are all things they need to both know and focus on. Well done!


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