“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Winston Churchill
This continues to be a controversial topic. There are some scientific studies and research that have been going on forever on this. It’s a difficult test to run and quantify accurately in a way that is definitive. I tend to be cautious when chatting with patients and caregivers about this because I would never, ever want them to feel in anyway deficient. That somehow if they just prayed more, believed more, were more positive they would have a desirable response to their treatment. It totally defeats the whole idea of the concept if it makes someone feel inadequate.
Having said all of that though, I do think it deserves discussion. I’ve touched on it before in my post on Spirituality, the Mind, My Two Cents… and Then Some (see also related posts there). The hard core science guys, atheists and agnostics, often reject vehemently these ideas that somehow if we have a good mental outlook and attitude we can alter the course of our lives, our health, and treatment. I remember on an old cancer site in the UK, it got so bad with one cancer patient and his blistering attacks on all the other members’ posts, that the administrators finally had to ban him from the site. It was sad really, because the other side deserves a voice, but he simply wouldn’t have a calm, gentlemanly discussion on the topic. The last thing the administrators want is for patients to be attacking one another on a public cancer website.
Diet, nutrients, herbs, massage, yoga, meditation, alternative/complimentary therapies, exercise, attitude, prayers, faith, etc. can come into the discussion when dealing with many crises and cancer is no different. Spouting off religious dogma is pretty universally shunned. On the other hand though, if the patient wants to express it as they are dealing with their disease, I generally don’t have any problem with that. But I don’t like to push my views on others. I don’t think it’s helpful. However, as I sit and chat with folks I genuinely listen to what they are saying. Clues into their thought process or curiousness about things of a spiritual, philosophical, mental nature. If it seems appropriate I gently enter the topic and see where it leads. Sometimes it is me who offers comfort and enlightenment. Other times it is me who learns something extraordinary that I can apply to my own life and situation.
When Dave got sick, as his caregiver, wife, friend, lover, I took it upon myself to very gently approach him from several fronts. I looked at him, his life, his nature and knew without a doubt that his foundation was crumbling on all fronts. His nutrition, his spirituality, physical, mental were all deteriorating to some degree or another. It was no mystery really. He was under a lot of stress and pressure. He had lost his career of 23 years as a satellite telecommunications engineer. He has patents, has traveled the world, is a Cornell educated Electrical Engineer. When he lost his job in 2002 the kids and I sat him down and said we didn’t need the big house and all this stuff. We were wanting to do our part to ease his burdens. He wouldn’t have it. In a private conversation with him later he expressed that he would feel like a failure if we sold the house and downsized our life. I was so frustrated with the macho attitude and we had our “discussion” to no avail.
Seven years later he had re-invented himself as a wireless expert. We were still in the big house and the kids were in private high school. I had gone back to the corporate world and had a relatively modest paying job that was rewarding and had the perks we needed to dovetail into his efforts to keep everything afloat. He did an amazing job, but it took a huge toll on him. Constantly traveling and commuting to other cities on a weekly basis for work. Eating crappy fast food daily and staying in cheap hotels. We argued a lot about it all, but he was doing what he felt was the right thing. I threw up my hands in defeat and kept the home fires burning as best I could. When he got the job offer for the company he is currently employed with, it took a group effort of all my friends to get him to accept the job and make a coast to coast move. Clearly, Dave does not like change. He accepted and left for California ahead of me. Staying with friends of mine and enduring an hour plus commute, again to save funds. When he went into the hospital and was diagnosed, I can’t say that I was surprised. Worried, scared, freaked out…you bet. But surprised? Not really.
“Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
It was in this crisis that he finally reached for the knowledge I tried for so many years to impart to him as he struggled with obstacles in his career and life. I was kind. I was gentle. I didn’t say, “I told you so.” Nope. I just looked at it as the opportunity that it was. Hoped we weren’t too late and decided that even if we were, it would be a good thing for him to come to terms with so many things he had no time to deal with.
So we attacked his Myeloma on all fronts. It wasn’t just medical intervention, though that was surely one of the bigger pieces. We also attacked the other areas of his life. He agreed with me that we should take a measured and comprehensive approach. When people ask me what we did, it’s difficult to pinpoint or express that there was one thing. There simply was so much more than one thing. It can all be so overwhelming. My job was to not become overwhelmed by all the outnesses in Dave’s life that needed repair, but to tackle sometimes simply the easiest ones and go from there. Or the ones that were creating the most havoc. It didn’t really matter if it is was the perfect route, just that we were on the route, moving forward. Cope and organize, cope and organize. That’s what I did and thank goodness Dave was on board. He didn’t fight with me about it, he just allowed me to nudge him and urge him in the direction that I felt he needed to go.
He stopped watching the news or movies that were violent. He really just emotionally couldn’t tolerate it. He felt like everyone was dying of cancer. The truth was he was just noticing. It was all too personal now. I listened a lot and no longer ranted and raved about my own issues. I had to find other outlets besides Dave. He was simply too vulnerable. So we worked to keep things happy and light as best we could. Breakdowns were allowed for Dave and a lot of reassurance from me that it was OK was needed.
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” – Hans Selye
But when we got to Arkansas and he was very disengaged and the simplest of things were going awry, I said, “If you are going to protest this, it is going to be a very unpleasant and bumpy road ahead.” He broke down. He didn’t want cancer. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want poison flowing through his body, losing his hair, being in constant pain, taking all the pills. “Yes. I understand.” I said. “But here’s the thing. You do have cancer. We have chosen this path toward regaining your health and your life. Your attitude about it is part of the solution or one of the barriers. We want it all and you need to be a participant in that process.” He nodded his head. “You’re right.” He said. From that moment on, it was smooth as silk. Granted he felt like shit, he did lose his hair (repeatedly), he still hated the pills, but he did it and he continued to do it. Eventually it just was what it was and we were in our routine.
Did attitude play a part in his recovery? Who knows. Did attitude play a part in our journey together, through treatment, overcoming obstacles, falling in love again, our children continuing through college and their lives, where we are now? Hell yes. Do we still work on these things? Yes, we do. As I’ve mentioned in the past when Dave would tell people “I’m taking my life back!” I would respond, “Yes, but we don’t have to take it all back.” We have been very selective about what, and sometimes who, we bring back into our lives. We are very conscious of the importance of happiness and joy as we balance out our days. Things we probably should have done years ago, but we are doing them now. Are we stress free? No. Are we stressed out? Definitely not. We simply handle things and move on.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” – Unknown
One of the pleasures I take these days is to brighten someone’s life. A stranger, acquaintance or friend. Saying something nice, supportive. Making the checker at the grocery store laugh. I enjoy the interaction of bringing a smile to an otherwise typical day. Perhaps they are worried, sick, stressed, tired, defeated, or someone just said something that makes them question themselves. It is these moments that I enjoy imparting wisdom and understanding to them. It puts a bounce in my step when I’m successful and alter the trajectory of their path in a better direction. When they contribute back to me, well, it is nirvana! 🙂