Each person must work through, in his or her own way, feelings of
possible death, fear, and isolation. Returning to normal routines as much as
possible often helps.
Give the pleasures and responsibilities of each day the attention they
Responsible pursuits keep life meaningful; recreation keeps it zesty.
Fill your life with both.
Remember the difference between "doing" and
"overdoing." Rest is important to both physical and emotional
It's harder to bolster one's will to live if you are alone. Yet many
have acted as their own cheering squad and have found ways to lead
Family members must not make an invalid of a person with cancer who is
fully capable of physical activity and responsible participation in the
Family members should not equate physical incapability with mental
failing. It is especially important that an ill patient feel a necessary
part of the family.
Families must guard against "rehearsing" how they will act if
the patient dies by excluding him or her from family affairs now.
Whether the outlook for recovery is good or poor, the days go by, one at
a time, and patient and family must learn to live each one. It's not always
easy. On learning the diagnosis, some decide that death is inevitable, and there
is nothing to do but give up and wait. They are not the first to feel that
Orville Kelly, a newspaperman, described his initial battle with the
specter of death. "I began to isolate myself from the rest of the world. I
spent much time in bed, even though I was physically able to walk and drive. I
thought about my own impending funeral and it made me very
These feelings continued from his first hospitalization
through the first outpatient chemotherapy treatment. On the way home from that
treatment, he was haunted by memories of the happy past, when "everything
was all right." Then it occurred to Kelly, "I wasn't dead yet. I was
able to drive my automobile. Why couldn't I return home to barbecue
He did, that very night. He began to talk to his wife and
children about his fears and anxieties. And he became so frustrated at the
feelings he had kept locked up inside himself that he wrote the newspaper
article that led to the founding of Make Today Count, the mutual help
organization for cancer patients and their families.
Each person must
work through individual feelings of possible death, fear and isolation in his or
her own good time. It is hard to overcome these feelings if they are never
confronted head on, but it is an ongoing struggle. One day brings feelings of
confidence, the next day despair. Many people find it helps considerably if they
strive to return, both as individuals and as a family, to their normal
Each day brings pleasures and responsibilities totally outside the
realm of cancer. We should try to give each the attention it deserves. These are
the threads of the fabric that enfolds our lives. They give it color and
The days can be more valuable if you can learn to enjoy common
moments as well as memorable occasions. This is true whether you have weeks or
years left. It is true, in fact, whether you have a life threatening disease or
not. Physical well-being is closely tied to emotional well-being. The time you
take out from attending to cancer strengthens you for the time you must devote
When you have cancer, you need responsibilities, diversions, outings,
and companionship just as before. As long as you are able, you should go to
work, take the kids to the zoo, play cards with friends, go on a trip. Try
to remember that responsible pursuits keep life meaningful, and recreation
keeps it zesty. You need activities that give you a sense of purpose and
those that provide enjoyment.
Some people find cancer is a spur to do the fun, adventurous, or
zany things they've always wanted to do but have put off as being not quite
responsible. That's a great idea. It helps ward off two overreactions- one
is giving up, and the other is trying to cram a life's worth of responsible
accomplishment into a very short time.
A young woman with cancer put it this way: "Too often we patients
fill up our lives with meaningful activities and neglect the frivolous
outlets that keep us sane. And we tend to forget how important our sense of
humor is." She quotes Betty Rollin, author of First You Cry, as
saying that cancer won't bestow a sense of humor on someone who doesn't have
it, but a sense of humor can sure get you through the experience.
There is no scientific or medical proof for it, but cancer patients who
have "places to go and things to do" seem to live longer-or at
least they feel that life still stretches before them. "I'm in my own
real estate business, started a year ago, and serve as an officer in eight
civic organizations," a woman wrote. "Life has never been fuller,
and for a 47-year-old grandmother, I've never felt stronger or better."
Seven years earlier, her family had been told she had six months to live.
Others have combined humor with too much interest in life to let go of
it. "Mine has been a long battle, but I'm not ready to call it quits
yet," one such person declared. "I'm just too busy to schedule my
demise, or maybe I just haven't the good sense to lie down and let it
happen!" Many have found they cannot retire from living. It's much like
employment-every day you show up, you may as well give it your best!
"Doing," it might be pointed out, is not the same as
overdoing. Try to recognize your limitations as well as your capabilities.
Fatigue can bring on crushing despair, and many people have found that as
simple a safeguard as adequate rest fends off depression. Exhaustion weakens
our physical and emotional defenses.
Pain also can make a mockery of attempts to function normally.
Physicians have learned much about controlling pain, so all pain, especially
if it is prolonged, should be discussed with your physician.
"Putting one's house in order" is a desire that strikes many
who learn they have cancer. This is not the same as giving up. In fact,
everyone needs to review insurance policies, update wills, and clean out the
closets and drawers from time to time-and that gives you something
constructive to do.
Going It Alone
It is obvious that many of these remarks have been directed toward the
person with cancer who is part of a family. Some live alone, however, and
some feel they have no one to "live for." This increases
loneliness and can make the will to live seem a bitter irony. They may want
to pull the covers over their head and "get it over with." If you
have no one else to provide encouragement, you have to act as your own
cheering squad. It is hard, but it's not impossible.
An amazing gentleman of 73, who had been treated on and off for 8 years
for Hodgkin's disease, described how he coped. "I kept on fighting.
This is what you must do. Positive thinking and an active life are two
things which will do a great deal to relieve the tension." In order to
stay involved with life and mentally active, he enrolled in the university
where he had received his bachelor of arts degree and began work on his
master's degree. "Some people think I'm crazy," he admits.
"Maybe I am, but it is a nice crazy anyway. At least, I have achieved
An elderly woman decided to "start a new life, make what's left of
this one count." She started helping a state school for the retarded,
and her home became "a depot for people with used clothing and toys.
Now I have branched out to helping with nursing homes. I am so busy and
happy; I have no worries."
Not everyone can go beyond themselves and give to others to this extent.
You might not have the physical or emotional strength. It may not be natural
to you, and you are still the same person you were. But many find cancer is
easier to live with if they choose constructive ways to fill their time-to
make part of each day count for what they can put into it.
Support From the Family
The desire to "do something" is common among nearly everyone
with a family member or dear friend who has cancer. There is nothing you can
do to change the course of cancer, so you do everything you can for the
person. Sometimes, doing everything is the worst course to follow.
People with cancer still have the same needs and often the same
capabilities as they did before. If they are physically able, they need to
participate in their normal range of activities and responsibilities-right
down to taking out the garbage. Helplessness, or worse, an unnecessary
feeling of helplessness, is one of the great woes of the person with cancer.
In the words of one:
"I am deeply angry over the way patients (not only cancer patients
but any patient with a life-threatening diagnosis) are automatically treated
as if we were mentally incompetent. Our relatives have RIGHTS; we have none.
This is by a sort of mutual consent, an unconscious conspiracy which seems
to be part of our culture. Let an individual become a patient . . . and he
is treated, without any 'competency hearing,' as if he had been found in a
court of law to be incompetent. Only the relatives are consulted or
empowered to make decisions..."
There is great bitterness in this woman's words, and they can stand as a
lesson to all. Although bedridden, a patient probably still is able to
discuss treatment options, financial arrangements, and the children's school
problems. The rest of the family must make every effort to preserve as much
as possible the patient's usual role within the family.
The least you can do is to keep the patient informed of necessary
decisions. You can help the seriously ill patient ward off feelings of
helplessness or abandonment if you continue to share your activities, goals,
and dreams as before.
Few of us who are well know what it is like to be placed in a position
of dependency. Cancer attacks one's self concept as a whole person as well
as threatening one's life. Feelings of helplessness are real enough when one
is flat on one's back. Make every effort not to compound them by ignoring
the wishes of the patient, or worse, by trying to make an invalid of a
person who is up and around. Pulling one's weight is good exercise.
How the Family Copes
The needs of the family as a unit are important, too. Maintain normal
living patterns within the family as well as possible. This is important for
long-range as well as day-to-day coping. Sometimes, when the patient is in
active treatment, family life becomes totally disrupted. If that happens, it
is harder to resume functioning as a unit during periods of extended
remission or permanent control.
"My worst emotional problem," one patient said, "was
finding that my improved health posed inconveniences and threw my family's
plans all out of line."
Understanding such a situation might help prevent it. There are many
ways we cope with fear, anxiety and the threat of loss or death. One way is
to begin preparing ourselves for an event by thinking about it, without
being aware that we are doing so, as if it had already happened. Thus, we
"rehearse" life as it will be so that we can assume our new roles
more easily when the time comes. People do this throughout their lives,
although usually they are unaware of it. For example, teenagers spend
increasing amounts of time with friends rather than with family,
"rehearsing" for the time when they will go out on their own.
When a family member has cancer, you may be "rehearsing" the
future in your own mind. You might begin to "practice" how the
family will function if that person dies. Watch for signs that you are
excluding the patient and turn the routine back toward normal if you are.
Knowing that these things happen, however, try not to feel guilty if you
find yourself emotionally out of step with remission or recovery.