Often we hear people who have been diagnosed with cancer say "I will battle this disease ... I will give it my all." What does this actually mean? What is it that is being fought, and what tools do we have to fight and defend ourselves?
You may think this question is non-sensical. We battle cancer, of course! We want to live, of course! I think there is another deeper meaning in this statement, which is all too often ignored.
It conveys a sense of determination and conviction to play an active part in treatment, living with and (hopefully) beyond cancer. Such an attitude goes beyond passively following the prescribed medical route. It involves seeking second opinions, researching additional medical and holistic support; trying to understand why the cancer may have developed; how we can help ourselves through the difficult times ahead (however long or short); how we can limit the risk of the cancer reoccurring.
To be diagnosed with cancer throws us into a personal crisis at so many levels: physical, financial, social, relational, spiritual and emotional. Nothing is what it was before. Everything is uncertain. We face a roller coaster of personal loss and stress, starting from our health and potentially our life, our work and social roles, our relationships and family life, our independence, our purpose and values. This is exhausting and heart-breaking.
Often people feel that they have been replaced by cancer; that their lives and who they are has been reduced to cancer; that their past achievements, dreams and ambitions no longer count for anything. How to cope? And how do others around us cope?
Our internal emotional landscape may be replaced by anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, cynicism and stress. We feel sorry for ourselves, irritable and depressed. We no longer know who we are.
Physically, due to the impact of the cancer or the treatment we may feel sick, have difficulty sleeping, experience memory loss and fatigue, feel anxious and vulnerable in so many ways. Operations, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other treatments can change the way we look (temporarily or long-term). We may not like what we see in the mirror. We may find it difficult to look at ourselves or let even those closest to us into our inner turmoil. What could they, what could anyone do?
Against this context a statement like "I will battle this disease" can stand like a little spark or a strong beacon of hope, that cancer does not defeat our spirit unless we let it, that we remain in charge and create options for ourselves.
Perhaps not everyone who makes such a statement is aware of what they might be in for. Perhaps some utter the battle cry because it's what is expected, and they don't feel very courageous at all. Perhaps the determination to be an active participant in dealing with cancer ebbs and flows with time. That would be normal. Facing up to and dealing with cancer takes physical and emotional energy and courage.
Many people use the experience to reassess their lives and their priorities. Dreams and aspirations are no longer delayed, the 'tomorrow and the future' is replaced with the 'here and now'. Life style, work pattern and relationship changes are made in order to no longer compromise one's health.
The cancer journey is as individual as the person affected by cancer (including family, friends and carers). There is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with the emotional impact. This is something we all need and can figure out for ourselves.
Surely, we are in the driving seat of our life - with or without cancer? Perhaps it is cancer, that can remind us of that fact.
MA (Couns.Psych.), Reg. MBACP (Accred)
Karin has personal experience of cancer treatment and specialises in counselling people affected by cancer, terminal illness, loss and bereavement.