Cancer, I Would Not Recommend It

23/05/2017 10:54

Despite its hidden appeal to some, I would not recommend cancer as an alternative lifestyle. At first, the disease appears to be quite scary, like one of those serial killers -Hannibal Lecter comes to mind- that are clever and single-minded. The reality is more banal and after a few months, cancer becomes quite boring. Cancer is like one of those serial killers that typically are found in the American Midwest or in Belgium, they kill because there is nothing more exciting to do. At the end of the day, having cancer is drudgery and it requires some ways of managing the inevitable fears associated with its treatment. Here I offer some coping mechanisms to those who are dealing with cancer.

Having cancer gives you an excellent opportunity to detoxify. By detoxing I don't mean it in the sense that normally healthy people torture themselves with crazy juice diets, like kale juice and the like. By detoxing I mean emotional detoxification. As you undergo different phases of cancer treatments, you quickly realise how many people drain you of energy. When you have cancer, the last thing that you want to deal with are the petty disputes and drama that emotionally toxic people bring to your life. You have bigger things in your plate. It is time to delink yourself from energy vampires, time wasters, people who promise but don't deliver. It is time to delete, delete, delete these people from your life.

I'm not too sure that having a positive outlook helps much in getting rid of cancer tumours. However, developing a sense of humour certainly helps to cope with the certain adversities that cancer patients face on a daily basis. The external physical changes that we have to endure (e.g., hair loss, scars, skin rashes) are a mirror of much more serious internal physical changes (e.g., vomiting, diarrhoea, tiredness). These changes are likely to drive even the sturdiest person to despair. The best remedy against depression is to find the humour -- maybe it is gallow's humour-- under the circumstances. More importantly, having a sense of humour about your condition helps tremendously as you face potentially awkward social situations, like dinner parties. As soon as you as you mention that you have cancer, the conversations around you come to a grinding halt. If someone asks me about my condition in such a setting, I tell them what it is like. However, I also don't want to be a cancer bore, so I have given myself a three minute rule. I will talk about my illness and my treatments for a maximum of three minutes. After three minutes I will make a light hearted remark about having cancer and I switch the conversation to something less depressing. Joking about your illness reassures others and, most importantly, yourself that you will make it.

Having cancer also means that you have to face moments of real terror, often alone. Unfortunately, few of us have learnt how to cope with frightening situations. In military school I was taught a trick on how to deal with fear. We learnt how to set up M18 Claymore mines, an anti-personnel land mine widely used during the Vietnam war. If you made a mistake whilst activating them, you could say goodbye to your hands and your face. Having fear as you set up these land mines was a completely natural reaction. We were taught that one way to relieve fear was to whistle. When you whistle, you regulate your breath and avoid not breathing or hyperventilating. I learnt that when you whistle, you calm yourself down, others around you are also less tense (unless, of course, you are a particularly bad whistler). Now whenever I have to face a fearful situation, like going to the operating room, I whistle. It works like a charm.

The final coping technique is to deliberately lie to yourself. Self-deception is a widely used coping mechanism. We believe, for instance, that one can be happily married, that vegan food tastes great, or that politicians are responsive to our needs, etc. In that context, it makes perfect sense to lie to yourself when dealing with cancer. All cancer treatments are, at best, deadly tedious or, at worst, terrifying. The key to managing these treatments is to actually look forward to them. This involves some serious self-deception. For instance, whenever I have a chemotherapy appointment, I have fooled myself into thinking that I'm going to a beach club, lounging about for the afternoon, having the luxury of watching movies on Netflix. These self-deception mechanisms are different from seeking a silver lining. That's cheerful optimism. In my view, self-deception works better, because it is hard to find a silver lining in a cancer ward or in an intensive care unit.