Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cancer and Anger

People dealing with chronic illnesses (and cancer, thankfully, has become a chronic illness for many lucky ones) are often expected to put on a happy face to greet a world oblivious to their problems. Is it possible to maintain a civil attitude and pleasant outlook when you are living with daily pain?

It’s tough to play the “glad game” when your joints are aching, your neuropathy is in full force, or your head is throbbing with another migraine. If, in fact, Pollyanna were to suggest that you look on the bright side, you might want to land a punch in her ever-pleasant puss or mow her down with your motorized walker.

Most of us don’t fall short in putting on a happy face, rather we overdo it and put on a happy face too often. Everyone I know (my husband included) who is living with pain and fatigue, doesn’t complain enough!

Anger is a normal reaction to a situation in which we feel a lack of control. The problem arises when anger is expressed inappropriately or when it is not expressed at all. Anger suppressed becomes depression. “Doctors are just beginning to understand how dangerous internalized anger is. Repressing it, internalizing it, turning it back on ourselves, swallowing it, storing it within us, inhibiting it, burying it, ''eating it,'' "stuffing it," can have catastrophic results for our health.”

How then can we get rid of our pent-up anger and not alienate everyone around us? Here are a few suggestions—not shoulds-- which only add more guilt to the load you’re carrying.

1.Don’t keep your happy face on all day. It’s exhausting. Holding anger in, repressing feelings drains us of energy that we need to cope with everyday activities. Find a safe place to express your feelings without fear of judgment—a support group or a friend you can phone.

2.Set aside a reasonable amount of time each day to vent, complain, cry, or shout from the rooftop. When the time is over, pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on.

3.If you’re having an especially bad day, indulge yourself without guilt. Stay in bed. Read a book. Sleep.

4.Remember that you have a right to your feelings and a need to express them. Don’t suffer in silence, but be prepared for some negative reactions if your family is used to your “stiff upper lip.”

5.Laugh. Bill Cosby said, “Through humor you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” 2 Whether laughter actually plays a role in healing has not been scientifically determined, but few deny its beneficial contribution to well-being. Norman Cousins, a writer, editor and humanitarian was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and progressive disease of the connective tissue. “Nothing is less funny than being flat on your back with all the bones in your spine and joints hurting,” he wrote. Convinced of the benefits of laughter, he developed a program of humor therapy—surrounding himself with positive people and a diet of funny movies. “It worked,” he said, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”

6.Try Laughter Yoga. This doesn’t mean that you try yoga and the class laughs. Laughter Yoga is a variation of yoga introduced by a physician in India that is now practiced in fifty-three countries. Laughter gives the participants a sense of control over their disease. If your community doesn’t offer this program, try Pilates or regular yoga. Both are stress-relieving and body strengthening.

7.Take control of your thoughts. There are many things beyond your control—your mind is not one of them. In Philippians 4:8 Paul tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is lively, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” If this weren’t possible, God wouldn’t expect us do to it. But He made us with the ability to control our thoughts and direct our minds even when we can’t control our bodies. As irritating as Pollyanna might have been, she was onto something.

Once you have given vent your feelings, indulged in some laughter, and focused on the positive, you might find it easier to meet the unrealistic expectations of friends and relatives. If my suggestions don’t work, I recommend knocking Pollyanna to her knobby knees. It may not be an appropriate expression of anger but I guarantee it will be satisfying.

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Oasis on the Cancer Journey

“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” (Isaiah 26:3).

Jim and I are at a place I never expected to be—an oasis in the midst of a long and arduous cancer journey. To quote Jim, “I never thought I would hear the words, ‘cancer free’ in my lifetime."

For the first time in eight years, the giant who has been living in our attic shows no signs of awakening. I’m not sure he’s dead, but he seems to be in a deep coma—hopefully fatal. Of course, we have daily reminders of the damage he has done. Neuropathy, osteo-necrosis, daily injections of Lovenox, Melatonin and Metformin pills—still a small price to pay for extermination of the beast.

While we are enjoying the respite, I have not forgotten what it is like to live in the giant’s presence. Updates from the McRaes and others, remind me how difficult it is to watch, wait, and wonder whether the cancer is gone, or still at work beneath the surface, creating a maelstrom of destruction. The sheer normalcy of days between scans is bittersweet, because we don’t know how many normal days are left.

Is it ever over for those of us who have learned that cancer is a sneaky foe, striking where and when it pleases? Those who have learned that our prayers aren’t always answered the way we would like? We who have observed firsthand how unfair cancer can be? We have seen suffering up close and personal and aren’t eager to sign up for another go-round.

One of the benefits of facing the death of a loved one is learning to appreciate each day for its previously overlooked blessings. And yet, when the specter of death hangs over us, when fear of recurrence surrounds us, the blessings are difficult to see. No matter how great the resolve to live in the moment, I have yet to find someone who can keep the resolution. Fear creeps in, robbing us of what joy we might have.

My advice to those in the throes of a cancer battle: Keep focused on the positive. Denial is sometimes a necessary and useful coping mechanism. Follow Paul’s advice to the Philippians. In the first part of Chapter 4, Paul tells us how to achieve “the peace that passes understanding.” We are to be thankful for all things and take our requests to God. Verse 8, perhaps less quoted, elaborates on how to achieve this peace that is beyond human comprehension—peace in the face of overwhelming fear, like a cancer recurrence.

We must come to God with grateful hearts, lay our requests before him, AND keep our minds on that which is “excellent and praiseworthy.” When Satan pummels us with fearful thoughts and plants seeds of doubt and fear in our minds, we can counter attack by focusing on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.”
When I was overcome with fear about upcoming tests, I asked myself, “What is true? What do I know?”

I don’t know that the cancer is back; I don’t know that the cancer will kill Jim; I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

But I do know: God wants the best for me. He has always proved faithful. He is a mighty God, more powerful than any disease. Nothing can separate me from His love.

Remember that our tomorrows have already passed through God’s hands. He waits there for us ready to carry us when we cannot walk. “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”