Coping with Cancer and Fighting for Life

How can we be more effective in coping with cancer? How can we find meaning and hope when faced with death?

These days, cancer seems to be all around me. So many people, dear and loved by me or to someone I know of have been diagnosed with cancer. It appears in various stages and ugly forms, spreading despair, anger and hopelessness. But then I also hear of ‘survivors’ – people who talk about ‘beating’ the cancer, that have been successfully treated and that the cancer is ‘gone’. That fills me with renewed hope and determination. We can do this, right? If one day I were to face this diagnosis, I know what I should do to cope with cancer. I will fight it. But is this always the most effective?

As a psychologist, especially one that focuses on positive psychology, more than anyone else I should know the fallacies and foibles of false hope. Of trying to ‘psych’ oneself up when it is simply not realistic. In the face of a bleak prognosis for instance, pretending that the battle against the disease can be won with just grit, determination and a die-hard spirit is not just false. False hope can be dangerous if it erodes strength when it is needed the most, when that battle cannot be won. One would then be faced with a feeling of defeat on top of all the other pain, suffering and challenges that the disease brings about.

Let us not deplete our mental resources battling the impossible, whether it is an incurable terminal disease, or death itself, which is more universally and relevant to each one of us. It is a battle that we are destined to lose. Instead, let us shift our focus and energy to what we can control.  Instead, let us fight for life. Let us fight for what we value, find meaningful and important in life. So, if you or a loved one is facing cancer, you can help them or yourself cope more effectively by considering or discussing what is important in life. Could it be time with the family? Could it be getting that Master’s degree that has been eluding you for years? Could it be a trip to the beautiful mountain calling it out to you? Or maybe it is to snorkel and see a coral reef!

With the wonderful advances made by medical science and technology, many are indeed treated successfully.Not every cancer diagnosis ends in pain and death, yet some cancers are terminal. And like death itself, they challenge us to be creative in coping with cancer and our battle for life. Whether we win the battle or not, we can improve our effectiveness in coping with cancer and we can certainly stop it from robbing us of life.

Read this thought-provoking opinion piece on US Senator John McCain, diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.