I have been thinking about the words and phrases used to describe cancer and a lot of it is very aggressive. Including the word ‘aggressive’. Here are some other words: fighting, brave, survivor, battle, win, remission, beat, victim, invasive, coping.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of cancer and I’m not trying to stick up for it, but I really believe that the way I, and you, think about this, is going to make a big difference to my getting better quicker.
The slightly twee ‘little c’ and ‘unwelcome guest’ language as well as the about page where my condition does not dominate are my attempts to challenge the traditional mindset. Here are some other repositioning exercises (I’d welcome contributions from you too):
“I’m going to get through this” instead of “I’m going to fight/beat this”
“I’m a cancer-dodger” instead of “I’m a cancer survivor”
“I’m better now” or “I’m cured” instead of “I’m in remission”
This last point brings to mind a talk I saw by Ellen Langer, a doctor who I saw speak at last year’s Happiness and its Causes conference. As well as conducting a fascinating experiment on a bunch of 80 year old men, she also published a study which asked breast-cancer survivors whether they considered themselves in remission or cured. The “cured” group reported better general health, more energy, less pain and less depression. Langer concludes “[T]he extremely significant results of this study warrant further research and a possible rethinking of how to instruct breast cancer survivors to envision their relationship with the illness.”
I accidentally came across some research that supports this whilst searching for ‘regret breast reconstruction.’
A tendency to use coping strategies characterized by helpless/hopelessness and anxious preoccupation, rather than fighting spirit, were highly predictive of distress.
On a related note, my lovely friend and colleague Jayne has offered some practical advice for those who are feeling helpless in the face of my situation. She says “It’s not easy for people to banish fear and anxiety without replacing it with something more constructive. They get sucked into the drama and don’t know how to get out of it, and of course, it’s quite contagious (like all dramas are).”
Here’s her ingenious solution:
You might like to try telling those people (all of us actually) that there IS something they can do: ‘Spend a few minutes a day seeing me strong and seeing me healing and recovering easily and quickly. If you could do that every time you think of me, that would be great. There might be some other stuff you can help with down the track too and I will ask, but right now, helping me stay positive is really important and I’d be really grateful.’
It’s about staying in control as much as possible in the face of lots of uncertainty. I can best sum it up like this: while I have cancer, it doesn’t have me. No siree. Not by a long, long chalk.