By Cancer Hope Network volunteer, Lynne D. Feldman, MA, JD
You’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or MS, or lupus, or another serious illness. You’ve naturally reacted with sadness, grief, fear, feeling that you face this alone, or perhaps hopelessness. These feelings resonate throughout our bodies, our minds, and our spirits as if a gong had been sounded. Once we feel that danger has entered our lives, we react in one of three predictable manners:
1. We fall into negative emotions.
2. We escape our emotions by racing into pleasurable activities to distract us.
3. We use our personal defenses like denial to avoid facing the unknowable.
When I was diagnosed first with breast cancer, I felt as though lightning had struck me. After a while, I had metabolized this dreaded news enough to come to terms with the implications of my diagnosis. A longer period of time elapsed and I felt that I had come to adapt well to the new realities with which I would forever after have to accommodate. Finally, after working hard on my psychological background, I came to a state of gratitude for what I still had.
Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with lung cancer a month later, and a month after that came down with a near-fatal infection that required the third serious surgery in three months. Each time I had a new diagnosis, I found myself back at the first phase of lightning strike, and then realized that I had to cycle through the rest of the phases until I could come back to gratitude.
What good did all of this do for me, when I had bodily suffering that lasted over eighteen months including five months of chemotherapy? The good came from eliminating unnecessary, or useless, suffering. I learned that when fear caused my stomach to contract and my muscles to tighten, my body was reacting as if I had actually been physically attacked. I learned that when my hands shook from apprehension during my medical testing, my entire body began to shake, since it thought there was actual physical danger before me. The old “fight or flight” response is still within us, even when the dinosaurs and wooly mammoths have long ago departed.
My surgeries, my difficult physical reactions to chemotherapy, those were true and factual responses. But my fear and how my body responded to it, was within my control. I could work with them. I began to distinguish between how things appeared to me, and the objective, factual truth of how they actually existed. Using the insights of author Elliott Dacher, I learned to work with this distinction by learning a few important skills: intention, gentleness, attention, mental stability, meditation, and insight.
The first one, intention, means that I had to work diligently so as not to fall back into old patterns of believing that I would forever have bad luck. It took some effort. But then I learned that if I hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer, they never would have done the scan that discovered my lung cancer which would have killed me in three years. How lucky was I to have gotten breast cancer!
Attention was next, and that involved quieting my busy-busy mind so that my inner guide could center me in the “now.” Fear of tomorrow’s test, or rumination over the pain of yesterday’s surgery would rob me of the quiet and openness I could access in the moment.
Gentleness was a rude awakening to me, as I realized that I had been far more loving, gentle, and kind to others than I had been to myself. Instead of considering it narcissistic or selfish, I began to see that I needed to fall in love with my core self, my unique self, rather than the ego-constructed mask I and others adorn to be among people.
Mental stability also involves emotional stability. As I faced new and painful tests, I had to learn to accept that this too would pass, and I needn’t fall apart while enduring the momentary hurt. I also learned that pain and negative emotions have a cascading effect, where once begun, it is often too forceful to stop them until they dissipate like a ferocious hurricane.
Finally, through learning mindfulness through meditation I gained insight and wisdom into how to deal with the fear I felt about my diagnoses and treatments. These skills take time and patience, but when looking for a bridge over troubled waters, we need to build a sturdy and lasting structure one plank at a time. It is well worth the effort.
And what else offers us the promise of reaching the other shore with deep gratitude for our journey?
Lynne D. Feldman is a lawyer, educator, and chaplain whose book INTEGRAL HEALING will be published October 2014.