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Let's Address Cancer's Emotional Suffering

Last modified 2014-03-18 12:55

"The subjective aspect (of illness) that is the experience of the sick person is by definition un-measurable; so is regarded as somehow less real…" Jeff Kane MD, US author of 'How to Heal'.

With the plethora of physical challenges usually associated with and its treatment, the emotional trauma that patients can experience and the impact it can have on their wellbeing and ability to cope well tend to be under-appreciated. As a result, the physical effects, while still very unpleasant and sometimes debilitating are better contained now by medicine. However the emotional impacts remain for the most-part ignored and with the patient having to bear them. The issue is that a person emotionally distraught won't function as well as they otherwise might in important areas such as problem-solving and decision making, and communicating needs and feelings with medical staff, family and friends. They are also more inclined to become depressed, be less resilient and determined, and feel helpless and hopeless in their circumstances.

The sad reality according to some studies is that for about half of all cancer patients, their emotional suffering is perceived to be even worse than the physical affects they experience. Clearly it warrants acknowledgement and addressing, but how and by whom?  A person chronically traumatised by their emotional response will benefit from clinical intervention and this will hopefully be observed by their medical team and addressed via prompt referral to appropriate specialists. More commonly however the distress, while harrowing, will not be viewed as clinically significant. As such it can most often be effectively self-managed or managed with the assistance of cancer support professionals. Mind-body-spirit measures (MBS measures – part of the suite of psychosocial support interventions) employed to serve individual needs at a given moment can substantially ease distress created by the emotional challenges of a cancer journey.

When I was first diagnosed with a lymphoma in 1979, the doctors decided not to treat me at that time. As a teenager left to my own devices, I found myself intuitively gravitating to MBS measures to help cope with my predicament. I never accepted the mantle "terminal" assigned to my condition, and I somehow knew that actively managing my emotional response to the cancer would be crucial to my coping with and ultimately belying the prognosis. There are numerous MBS measures available for people living with cancer to use. I chose the following because they appealed to me. and enabled me to relax and remain positive and focused on my recoveries in circumstances – with treatment failures and recurring disease – that would otherwise have been difficult. They also helped lessen my treatment side-effects, such as nausea and pain. Different types and applications of music and writing helped me to release , express my notoriously repressed emotions, replace with positivity, and overcome that would otherwise have stifled my ability to communicate, make optimal decisions, and build and maintain my determination and resilience.

Humour has always been my best friend and it served me particularly well now. I took the lead from Norman Cousins (author of the classic book Anatomy of an illness) and built my own laughter library. I tried to retain and enjoy my ability to laugh no matter what my predicament. Humour's therapeutic benefits were numerous. It raised and maintained my spirits, helped me face countless procedures, and contributed along with music and writing to enable me to access and express my emotions, enabling tensions to be released. Meanwhile affirmations, positive language use, visioning and goal setting collectively focused my mind on favourable outcomes and in a very real sense sustained my hope, faith and will to live. I have always been at my core, an enthusiast for and lover of life. But when you find yourself in the dark abyss that cancer and its treatments can take you to, the pain of the present can make it difficult to see a future worth fighting for. As my MBS programs helped sustain me, I reminded myself constantly that my suffering was only temporary, while always conceptualising and planning for an even better future ahead to fight for. I was adhering to Nietzche's philosophy that we can endure almost anything if we have a why.

Phil Kerslake is a New Zealand-based, 6-time survivor of various lymphomas over 30 years, and the author of the bestselling (in NZ) book Life, Happiness… Cancer: survive with action and attitude!


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